August 27, 2014

A picture may be worth a thousand words, and a 3D model is worth a thousand pictures. At Boston Children’s Hospital, doctors perform practice surgeries using high-resolution, plastic 3D models printed from the patient’s CT scans.

Using individual patients’ CT or MRI scans as source data, doctors can print out 3D models that accurately capture the unique anatomy of each individual child. The 3D printed models allows doctors to practice on it before going into the operation room, and it can also be used as a guide for treating the child patient during the operation. Because doctors know what to expect, they can even help shorten the surgeries in some cases.

In February 2014, the hospital launched its own in-house 3D printing service. Built by Peter Weinstock, MD, PhD, and Boston Children’s Simulator Program, this 3D printing service allows doctors can print out any 3D models in much shorter time.

“There are medical 3D printing vendors, but they take weeks to months to send you a model and cost a great deal of money,” says John Meara, Boston Children’s Hospital’s plastic surgeon-in-chief. “We gave Weinstock the patient’s image data, and he printed the model for us overnight.”

The printer they use has a resolution down to 16 microns and can print objects in multiple materials. The high resolution 3D printer allows models to be made in fine details, which can be critical for building something small such as a baby’s brain or skull. The multiple material 3D printer can print replicas of organ in different tissue types, allowing the surgeons to see the structure clearly and accurately determine the right margins in opeartion. In addition, these models can also be used to help parents understand their children’s surgeries, Weinstock said.

In the image below, Neurosurgeon Joseph Madsen, MD, shows a 3D printed model of a brain based on one of his epilepsy patients. The model shows her brain’s exact contours, even the placement of her “grid”: the network of electrodes Madsen’s team used to find the focal point of her seizure activity.

“It can be hard to conceptualize and explain an operation just from imaging,” says Madsen. “In a case like this, there’s no good way to practice before surgery.”

The 3D printed models are also an important tool for training future surgeons. As each patient’s case is different, those trainees can hold models in hand and see the real difference. “It’s hard for a trainee to visualize exactly what a severe anomaly looks like,” Meara says. “To give them the opportunity to hold and feel the anatomy lets them train their proprioceptive senses and learn more than they could from imaging.” Each of these models can be used to educate trainees so next time when they saw this kind of anomaly they would be more prepared.

Images credit: Boston Children’s Hospital

Meara adds, “With the models, we can try 10 different approaches on the same case without risking harm to a patient.”

The team has already printed about 100 body parts over the last year and demand is growing, Weinstock said.



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