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How 3D Printing Is Changing Medical Simulation

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How do would-be doctors practice difficult procedures? The answer is medical simulation. The same technology that allows pilots to master the controls of various aircraft can work to train a surgeon to remove a kidney stone or teach a first year medical student gross anatomy. EIGER lab, and the like, with advances in technology, and specifically the use of rapid prototyping and 3D printers, are improving the training process for healthcare professionals by providing more realistic and accurate models.

About Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping is creating a model in 3D using computer-aided design, or CAD, software. For product development and medical simulation, it refers to additive layer manufacturing with a 3D printer. The University of Exeter explains additive layer manufacturing uses different materials to build two-dimensional layers that combine to create a three-dimensional object.

In 1999, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute developed a way to grow a urinary bladder in a lab using a 3D synthetic scaffold. This discovery opened the door to applying rapid prototyping and additive layer manufacturing to improve medical training.

The Use of Rapid Prototyping in Medical Simulations

Through simulation, students get hands-on experience learning to perform difficult tasks. Anyone who has taken a cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, class has seen this process first hand. Resusci Anne simulates an unconscious patient in need of CPR. People use this model to learn proper technique for applying chest compressions and rescue breaths.

Resusci Anne is the result of more traditional manufacturing processes, but modern day medical simulation is turning to rapid prototyping to develop anatomically accurate models for a variety of procedures. In the past, medical students had to practice on cadavers or train on a live patient. Thanks to rapid prototyping, students practice on 3D printed models before switching to a human body. There are simulations available for procedures in a variety of specialties including:

  • Radiology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Urology
  • Cardiology

Examples of Medical Simulation using Rapid Prototyping

This University of Michigan 3D Lab describes one of the first available simulations using 3D printed models. A surgeon can master threading a guidewire and catheter through the femoral artery to the heart in order to clear an obstruction.

Neurosurgery is one the most technically complex specialties, and it is difficult to train doctors in this field because materials are both expensive and hard to acquire. With rapid prototyping, manufacturers use data from actual patients to create realistic models of the spine, skull and brain.  This allows surgeons to learn delicate procedures such as:

  • Removing brain tumors in the frontal lobe
  • Draining fluid from the brain
  • Surgically removing a compressed spinal nerve

Other Medical Uses for 3D Printing

The value of additive layer manufacturing in the medical arena goes beyond just simulation. This technology may one day be the key to organ transplants. Donate Life America reports there is a global shortage of donor organs, and more than 100,000 people with their names on transplant waiting lists in the United States alone. Scientists are learning to use living tissue to create viable transplant organs instead of waiting for a donation.

Researchers are also looking to replicate organs that fail instead of relying on transplants. If a kidney becomes diseased, a team utilizes tissue from the patient to print out a new one. Other medical uses for 3D printing include:

  • Custom jaw implants and facial reconstruction
  • Creating pediatric braces
  • Developing prosthetic limbs
  • Manufacturing custom fitted hearing aids

Rapid prototyping is an emerging industry in the medical community, one that promises to expand training options and improve health care worldwide. If you are considering CAD design and 3D printing as a career, ask about the revolutionary field of product development for medical simulation.