Performing any kind of surgery requires a great deal of precision. Now surgeons can use an exact 3-D model of the patient’s organs, to practice a procedure and hone their skills before performing it on the patient.
Although 3-D printing was first invented in the mid-1980s, we are only starting to explore its potential numerous medical applications and benefits. At USC Urology of Keck Medicine of USC, cancer patients in need of surgery are getting the opportunity to see just how beneficial the technology is to their treatment.
Urological surgeons are able to use 3-D reproductions of their patients’ organs as guides to find cancerous cells. Surgery often is recommended for patients with aggressive cases of prostate cancer. But doctors need an exact guide to find the exact location of the cancer.
Inderbir S. Gill, MD, executive director of the USC Institute of Urology and associate dean for clinical innovation at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, uses 3-D printed organs, to improve patient outcomes. “Once we are in there, it has been impossible to see where the cancer is,” says Gill. “Our chances of removing all the cancer increase, with better data and better tools.”
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The 3-D copy of the prostate helps Gill avoid coming into contact with areas surrounding the prostate (like nerve bundles), which can lead to harmful side effects, including incontinence and impotence. According to Gill, the surgeons at USC Urology are among the first to explore this technology.
Measuring the right amount of radiopharmaceuticals
The new cancer application also involves 3-D molds that can be filled with liquid, allowing experts to see, in detail, the flow of radiopharmaceuticals. Radiopharmaceuticals are drugs containing radioactive material that may be injected into a vein, taken by mouth or placed in a body cavity. They are used to treat a number of different tumors, including thyroid cancer, cancers of nerves cells in children and certain tumors that have spread to the bones.
Often, the difficulty in this procedure is calculating a dose that is high enough to kill the cancer cells without causing too much damage to healthy tissue. In the future, accurate modeling could allow doctors to fine-tune dosing.
Using duplicates in reconstructive surgery
As part of reconstructive surgery, plastic surgeons have begun using 3-D printers, to help create duplicates made from polymers. Models from 3-D printers serve as templates and help surgeons carve out bone replicas, as well. Experts believe that the use of digital planning in prosthesis development produces superior results, by reproducing the exact shape from CAT-scan data. This makes the replacement bones a good match to the patient’s natural bone.
Engineers and physicians print entire prosthetic limbs, which helps to create a more exact fit for patients. Children with prosthetics also can benefit, as the children grow and need replacements. Digital blueprints can be kept in their files for reference, and because the process requires less labor, the price is more affordable.
3-D printing also has been used in making tablets and sensors for postoperative care, which can be implanted in a patient’s body, prosthetic parts, tissues with blood vessels, cardiovascular models, bones, ear cartilage, heart valves, and replacements for cranium and synthetic skin.
New applications of 3-D printing are being used in the medical field every day. Researchers are developing printers that can print out human tissue or even pills. In the future, patients may be able to print their own drugs at home.
by Ramin Zahed