Printing a Piece of You

by Anna Dubnicka

Mia Gonzalez is a four-year-old girl living in Florida who, like many girls her age, enjoys dancing and playing with her friends. Unfortunately for Mia, she cannot participate in many of these activities because she constantly suffers from a cold or pneumonia that makes the simple task of breathing a demanding undertaking. As her primary symptom was shortness of breath, doctors originally diagnosed Mia with asthma.

However, further investigation revealed that Mia actually suffers from a rare heart malformation that will require open-heart surgery. Mia's congenital heart defect, called a double aortic arch, is comprised of a vascular ring wrapping around her trachea. This medical complication results in limited airflow, labored breathing and difficulty swallowing.

Like any highly invasive procedure, performing a double aortic arch surgery on Mia comes with a certain amount of risk. In order to reduce surgical complications and post-operational recovery time, Mia’s surgeons know that it is imperative for them to use the smallest and minimum number of incisions possible, finish the procedure in a limited amount of time to reduce the risk of infection, and work in a coordinated fashion in order to avoid any mistakes during the operation. Seem difficult?

It definitely did so initially. However, thanks in large part to the new 3D printing technology available at the hospital, the team of surgeons did not have to agonize over the best approach for Mia's operation. They were able to print out an exact three-dimensional replica of her organs and use it to study as well as practice the operation.

This exciting new technology works by first taking a patient's MRI or CT scans. Using these images as a guide, the hospital's 3D printer lays down layers of rubber or plastic to produce an exact replica of the patient’s organs. Printing in flexible materials like rubber allows surgeons to simulate different techniques and practice numerous trials of the individualized operation plan. Printing in rigid materials like plastic, on the other hand, provides a hands-on experience along with an anatomically accurate map to plan out the surgical process and help explain the plan to the families of patients. In addition to providing greater certainty, the 3D model saves both surgical and recovery time. Being able to visualize and plan out incisions reduces the need to improvise during the operation. As a direct result, the patient's recovery time is reduced.

Dr. Redmond Burke, the surgeon who operated on Mia, offered his insight in an interview with CNN. “Without the model, I would have been less certain about operating on Mia, and that would have led me naturally to make a larger incision that could possibly cause more pain and a longer recovery time,” he said.  When asked about the benefits of using the 3D printed model, Burke explained, "there was no doubt, and surgeons hate doubt."

In addition to printing a model for practicing and planning complex cases, 3D printing is also already being used to create implants and prosthetics in the medical field. This is rapidly speeding up the process of acquiring a customized implant or prosthetic. But the benefits don't end there. Materials for a 3D-printed hand, for instance, cost less than $100, whereas a traditionally produced prosthetic limb can range from $3,000 to $50,000.

Beyond its medical usage, 3D printing has the ability to alleviate some of the burdens of healthcare costs faced by families of amputees or other disabled individuals. By reducing the manufacturing costs, 3D printing significantly increases the quality of life of disabled individuals in need across the world. Additionally, 3D prosthetics can be produced to have a more aesthetically pleasing design with intricate crisscrossing or carvings. For children, the prosthetic process can even be made more fun with options like a prosthetic printed arm that imitates Iron Man's!

In the future, researchers hope to successfully apply this technology to organ transplants. Investigators across the country are currently working to bio-print live cell tissue into organs for transplant. In this prototype technology, 3D printers lie down layers of live-cells, with the final result being a fully functional organ. The medical community is optimistic that this technology will soon become available for a greater population. Given its many practical applications, the success of this technology has the ability to alleviate the global shortage of organs available for transplant.

This is just the beginning of the abundant opportunities and possibilities offered by 3D printing technology. At the current rate of rapid development and innovation in the biomedical field, smoother and more effective healthcare procedures are very much within reach. With a little bit of luck and innovation, 3D printing will soon have the ability to change many more lives for the better, just as it has done with Mia Gonzalez.