While it may be a while before we’re 3-D printing live organs for human transplant, researchers at Notre Dame are pioneering a medical use for the emerging technology that’s ready to be put into action today: using 3-D printers to create educational models of skeletons and soft tissue systems.
The technique provides a cheap and easy way to turn data from a computer screen into something students and researchers can touch and hold. Like many projects in the medical world, the Notre Dame researchers began theirs with rats: taking 3-D body scans of the critters, uploading that data to a computer, translating it into a 3-D printer ready file, and then extruding "a complex physical model of skeletal or soft tissue data in plastic."
The researchers claim the resulting models can embody far more complexity than traditional plastic injection molding, and they’re able to create models of soft tissue systems, like lungs, that nest within the skeletal frame. It’s also a lot cheaper than purchasing high-quality anatomical models, which can run in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. "At Notre Dame, there are 100 kids in anatomy class and they have to share five skulls," Matthew Leevy, the head of the Notre Dame lab where the technique was developed, told Wired. "For 10 to 20 bucks they could each have their own skull to take back to their dorm to study."
The researchers behind the project envision a day where surgeons print out patient-specific models before complex operations, to get a better sense of a person’s unique anatomical terrain. A brain tumor could be printed in a different color plastic from the rest of the body, to make it stand out and easily identifiable.