Written by Aaron Minard

A 3-D printing revolution has seamlessly altered manufacturing, prototyping, and design processes for countless industries from space exploration to the operating room.   Part of this transformation has resulted in the potential for improved surgical outcomes.

This potential was realized by a Houston mother whose daughter was diagnosed with transposition of the great vessels that required an emergency operation.  With a business background in the 3-D printing industry and the support and enthusiasm of pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons, Anne Garcia founded the non-profit “OpHeart”.  The mission of OpHeart is to place 3-D printed technology in the hands of pediatric cardiac surgeons to improve surgical outcomes in the lives of children.

Dr. Redmond Burke, Director of Cardiovascular Surgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, aptly suggested that “You can’t give someone a piece of paper with a picture of a rubrics cube on it and say “How do you solve this?” You have to hold that three dimensional object in your hands and then come up with a solution.”  Burke goes on to explain that 3D printing technology “..helped take someone from being inoperable to operable. And we saved their life.” 3-D printing technology affords surgeons the ability to hold, examine, plan, and practice their procedure on a patient specific model prior to entering the OR.

3-D printed models are also being utilized by Memorial Hermann Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons in the Texas Medical Center for facial reconstructive surgery.  Raw CT data is sent to Materialise, a company that created software known as “Mimics” which converts the CT data to a format understood by the 3-D printer.  A patient specific model is then printed and an accurate model of the facial deformity, tumor, or injury is provided to the surgeon.

After the surgeons receive the 3-D printed models, they are used as a guide to contour titanium implants to reconstruct the framework of a face.  This allows surgeons to perform and perfect their intended surgery outside of the OR on a model prior to engaging in complex facial reconstruction.  Dr. Jonathon Jundt, an Assistant Professor and Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon at Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center stated that, “The ability to pre-bend plates prior to surgery can save hours of time in the OR.  Before 3-D models were available, complex three-dimensional bending of titanium implants were done by hand in the OR while the patient remained under general anesthesia.  Now, most titanium implant contouring is done before the patient sets foot in the OR.”  Both hospitals and patients benefit from shorter and more accurate procedures in the OR.  In some cases, additional corrective surgeries may be avoided by precisely realigning facial bones during the initial reconstruction.

While the current process of outsourcing the conversion of CT data to a 3-D printable format and the creation of a 3-D printed model is a useful resource, the timeframe for submitting the data and receiving the models can be lengthy.  In order to reduce time and streamline model generation, some surgeons have elected to incorporate 3-D printing technology within their hospitals.  One such hospital, the Salisbury District Hospital, acquired a Stratasys Objet 3-D printer and has utilized this technology extensively in their Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery division.

See a video highlighting their story here:

Given the positive affirmation by surgeons in multiple specialties on the advantages of utilizing 3-D printing for patient care, it seems likely we’ll continue to hear even more stories about 3-D printing for medical applications in 2016.

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