Nov 11, 2015 | By Alec

Over the past few years, the primary medical application of 3D printing has been reaching academic hospitals all over the world. 3D printed joints, bones, rib cages and even organs such as hearts have all been made, based on CT scans to assist surgeons prepare for a particularly complex surgery. It has already saved the lives of many patients, and is proving to be a low-cost and fantastic 3D printing solution. And that it can be applied to just about any medical field is now again emphasized by a Canadian surgeon. Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of surgery at the University of Saskatchewan, has recently used to same principle to make a brain replica for a complex deep brain stimulation procedure.

This procedure is particularly complex, and involves opening the skull and inserting electrodes into toe brain folds. A small error can do permanent damage in that area, so dr. Mendez always carefully prepares with the help of computer simulations. In this particular instance, however, the technology failed him. Trying to weave one electrode to focus on two targets, the limitations of the software became apparent as it could predict how the tissue would react. ‘I wanted a way to really, before I did a surgery, to know exactly how this was going to reach the brain and the targets I wanted,’ Mendez explained to reporters.

Enter 3D printing. Having never worked with the technology before, he contacted the University’s school of engineering and assembled a team of experts: engineers, a radiologist, MRI specialists and neuropsychologists. All with the purpose of translating complex brain MRI data into 3D printable files. After about seven months of work, they 3D printed an initial prototype in rubber, but that didn’t accurately display the necessary smaller features.

Just now, Mendez and his team completed a larger, more detailed model he can work with. ‘You can actually do the surgery. You can actually put the needle in the brain,’ he said of the surgical model. That’s great, because he needs a real practice run that highlights the route using during surgery. ‘You can get really lost, because you really don’t know. But when you have the model it lets you see exactly where you want to go,’ he adds.

3D printed in transparent synthetic rubber, this brain replica even matches the consistency of an actual brain, and Mendez said he was very impressed by the results. ‘I'm a neurosurgeon but I'm also interested in art. To me, this was an object of beauty,’ he said, adding that it was also very practical in use. He went on to speculate that the same principles could be applied to patients with tumors or lesions in their brain, enabling surgeons to understand what removal will do to the other structures – something that doesn’t really work in digital models. ‘And you really would not understand it, even if you rotate a 3D image, unless you actually see that,’ Mendez added.

But when discussing 3D printed medical innovations, nothing is more eye-catching than 3D printed organs, cartilage and blood vessels. However, Mendez revealed that even the specialists are dreaming of the day when those bioprinting applications become a reality – even when it comes to 3D printed brains. ‘I envision that in the future we may be able to do procedures that are very difficult or impossible today,’ he said. ‘I feel that in the next 20, maybe 25 years, we will be able to print biological materials. We may be able to print organs. 3D printing is in its initial stages, but the future is very exciting.’



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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