How 3D Printing Makes Surgery More Personal

Liver models

No two livers are exactly alike. This uniqueness creates difficulty for surgeons, who need to remove damaged areas of a liver while keeping healthy areas intact.

Enter 3D printing. This technology creates highly accurate 3D models that surgeons can use as visual aids to prepare for each individual’s unique anatomy.

That preparation is necessary with the liver in particular. The hepatic vein, which is located inside the liver, can present a challenge because its exact position varies from person to person. Unfortunately, severing the hepatic vein during surgery can lead to liver failure.

“The implications of this ‘bioprinting’ are almost unfathomable. We might one day be able to create living, functional organs in a laboratory.”

Paul DiCorleto

Paul DiCorleto, PhD

Lerner Research Institute

Cleveland Clinic surgeons overcome this challenge and others by creating transparent, 3D liver models for complicated cases. Before surgery, CT images of a patient’s liver are converted into a digital model. Then, a specialized printer uses that model to carefully arrange layers of a plastic-like material — eventually producing a precise 3D “image” of the liver.

Surgeons can study the liver model — complete with the tricky inner blood vessels — before surgery. They can even use it in the operating room to guide them through a procedure.

Disruptive technology

“Disruptive technology” refers to advances with the potential to transform the status quo — to change the way we do science or practice medicine. It may be a buzzword, but it certainly applies in the case of 3D printing.

3D printing has been around since the 1980s but has recently captured the public imagination, in part because of its potential to revolutionize healthcare. Surgical prep using 3D models is just one example among many. Rapid prototyping of medical devices is another.

Karl West, MS — biomedical engineer, director of Medical Device Solutions and head of Lerner Research Institute’s 3D printing lab — calls 3D printing “the wave of the future of healthcare.” West explains that the technology has already been used to create artificial airways and blood vessels, plus models of diseased organs.

Some researchers are taking 3D printing a step further by using human cells as layering material. The implications of this “bioprinting” are almost unfathomable. We might one day be able to create living, functional organs in a laboratory. Although we have made remarkable advancements in organ transplantation over the past 60 years, there are still issues, such as a massive organ shortage. Bioprinting could help overcome this issue.

3D printing is already in use for precise surgical preparation. If researchers can move it to the level of bioprinting, this technology will be that much more promising — and that much more disruptive.


Paul DiCorleto, PhD

As Chair of the Lerner Research Institute, Paul DiCorleto, PhD, oversees all laboratory and clinical research at Cleveland Clinic. He is an expert in cardiovascular biology.
  • jmama

    Oh dear Lord, my daughter is 30 years young, has 3 small children, her husband is active duty military and is gone around 7 months out of a year on a submarine. She was just diagnosed with this in 2014. She has lived in extreme pain due to serious spine problems and the ordeal she has been through with that alone is horrific!! I can’t loose my baby girl, please tell me this is not going to take her life! She is on 3 different kinds of blood medicine with one being an emergency prescription that she has to take regularly because her BP is always very high even being on all this medication.

    • The_Beating_Edge_Team

      jmama – we would love to see your daughter at the Cleveland Clinic for an evaluation – but if she is unable to travel – I would suggest a second opinion in a large heart center that treats many patients with this condition. You may also be interested in web chats we do with our physicians – you can ask them questions – you can see a calendar of events at Your daughter can also talk to our nurses at Hope this helps – betsyRN

    • kentuckyliz

      Whole foods plant based no oil could work for her–Eat to Live by Dr Joel Fuhrman is worth checking out.

  • May AlKhafaji

    Thank you for discussing this great topic. I have had a high sed rate for the last 3 years, no doctor has been able to tell me why… all other test such as rhumatoid factor, etc are normal. The Sed rate is between 50 – 78 (that’s in the last 3 years).
    I’m telling them that I’m not feeling my normal self, no doctor listens.
    I am 43 F… no blood pressure, no diabetes, thyroid normal.
    Please advise, what should I do?

    • Dawn Anewday

      Do you have a virus? Viruses will cause ESR to run high. Thick blood will too. Dehydration can contribute.

      • Looking for diagnosis

        None of that.

        • Janet Still MSN-FNP

          There are viruses we have no test for …
          Unfortunately conventional medicine does not have all the answers. Lifestyle modification, in the meantime, can help buffer your body from the effects of inflammation.

    • Mary Jane Aures

      I have had high sed rate and crp for almost 5 years. My sed at the higest was 114, crp is also elevated. I went to Clev Clinic had every blood test known, exploratory surgery, bone marrow biosopsies. Cat scans Mri , pet scans. I have lost approx. 15-20 lbs, little appetite. Have taken Kineret and Aleve daily, Illaris also. Very tired and hight fevers. All the Drs can tell me is I have an inflammation. RA test are negative. There just are no answers.