How 3-D Printing Makes Surgery More Personal

Liver models guide surgical precision
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.

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Enter 3-D printing. This technology creates highly accurate 3-D 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

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Lerner Research Institute

Cleveland Clinic surgeons overcome this challenge and others by creating transparent, 3-D 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 3-D “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.

3-D 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 3-D models is just one example among many. Rapid prototyping of medical devices is another.

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Karl West, MS — biomedical engineer, director of Medical Device Solutions and head of Lerner Research Institute’s 3-D printing lab — calls 3-D 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 3-D 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.

3-D 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.

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