A few days after my post about innovative patients using desktop 3D printing to help themselves and their loved ones, I visited Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where I met Matt Batie, a clinical engineer and a true inspiration. Batie uses two MakerBot Replicator Z18s to prepare surgical teams for complex operations.
When I was there, he was working on a case involving a child who has a birthmark covering much of his torso. Many birthmarks need to be removed, since they can develop into skin cancer. To get rid of a large birthmark, a plastic surgeon will implant tissue expanders — basically medical-grade water balloons — under the child’s skin. Over the course of a few months, the balloons will fill with fluid and skin will grow and stretch over them. When enough healthy skin grows, the birthmark can be removed and the healthy skin can cover where it was.
To plan for this kind of operation, the surgical team will practice on 3D prints of the the torso (or whatever part of the body is affected), which Batie makes from a scan on the MakerBot Replicator Z18. Following instructions from the plastic surgeon, he will make a model that incorporates the fully ballooned expanders into the torso, then cover it with skin-like rubber just like Hollywood special-effects artists use. This way, surgeons can test whether they’ve found the best places to implant the expanders, and also the best places to cut when they’re ready to remove the birthmark. After trying out various approaches and choosing the best one, they can also generate a precise template that will guide their incisions during an operation.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has used this technique already with five children, including a toddler named Lily, who had birthmarks on her face, head, and neck. Surgical planning on a 3D print can help surgeons reduce operating time and avoid errors — so it improves a child’s chances for success. Thomas Sitzman, the plastic surgeon who treated Lily, has said, “I think being able to model each individual patient’s surgery in advance is going to just bring us a tremendous step forward.”
Other hospitals are also using desktop 3D printers to plan delicate operations. In Louisville, Kosair Children’s Hospital made a 3D model of a 14-month-old boy’s heart before repairing a hole in it. “Once I had a model of this child’s heart, I knew almost exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it,” Dr. Erle Austin, III, said at the time. Houston Methodist Hospital printed a full-scale model of the brain of a 37-year-old man before removing a malignant tumor. Veterinary surgeons are also using MakerBot to generate models of patients and reduce operating time and risk.
After ten years in the 3D printing business, you can still meet amazing individuals who are using this technology in ways you never thought possible. And as Matt Batie and his colleagues at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital told me, “This is only the beginning.”
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