3D printing Used to Create Anatomical Models with Functioning Organs

Eindhoven University of Technology is home to PhD candidate and Healthcare Flagship Program participant, Mark Thielen, who is on a mission to increase surgical and procedural success for neonatal patients. Using 3D printing and 3D Hubs, he’s creating the best possible training experience with lifelike newborns capable of intelligent sensor feedback with functional organs.

For surgeons and nurses, experiencing as close to the real thing as possible is incredibly important to the success of surgeries and medical procedures. Within the neonatal field, it’s incredibly difficult to practice correctly with the current state of practice mannequins which lack the complexity and feel of a newborn patient. Mark’s research is to develop manikins which have all their major internal organs functioning and equipped with sensors to monitor key measurements such as pressure, stress and impact during trial procedures (e.g CPR, intubation).

The reason 3D printing is being applied in this area is a combination of the vast materials available for testing and, most importantly, the organic shapes you can create with them. Mark explains why he’s using 3D printing:

“Without 3D printing, this work would have been impossible. The sheer complexity of human anatomy is very hard to recreate realistically with any other production method, not to mention the cost and time differences.”

In Mark’s quest to find the material that acts most like a newborn's internal structures, he’s gone through over 15 different materials, testing them to find out their properties under stress. Mark has used an array of 3D printing technologies, including Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), Laser Sintering (SLS) and Multi-Material Jetting (MJ). There are two key components to the mannequin: the ribcage/spine, which acts as the housing for the second component, the internal organs.

After testing various thermoplastic elastomers on his internal desktop FDM 3D printer to initially create the larger parts such as the rib cage, he arrived at 3D Hubs. As a distributed network of 3D printing services, 3D Hubs gave Mark to access a wider array of materials at services near to him. He ordered the rib cage and full internal structure in thermoplastic rubber again but used Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) thanks to accuracy and dimensional freedom of the technology:

“3D printing helped this research by enabling the synthesis of models for testing in a swift and detailed manner. As this research focusses on the physical realm, it is important that we work with physical models rather than just virtual ones. 3D Hubs allowed me to create the larger components locally and in a material otherwise not available to me.”

To create the functional organs PolyJet 3D printing was used to create molds instead of traditional methods because of the inability to rapidly change the molds if needed and also the shapes needed, Mark explains:

“​Due to the extremely small sizes of neonatal organs, as well as their minuscule detail, the only way to create a mold for these parts was to 3D print them.”

Material Jetting allowed Mark to combine materials (rigid and flexible plastics) when creating the molds. For example he created a heart that needed to have highly detailed working valves. The normal removal process for a mold (3D printed or not) would have damaged the intricacies of the heart model. Combining flexible materials at the points most sensitive to damage (the valves), it allowed for the heart model to be removed intact.

When the ribcage and organs are combined, Mark runs a fluid through the mannequin with two cameras and sensors installed, giving live feedback on every part of the mannequin throughout various trial procedures. The liquid acts as a signal when pressure is too much or too little alongside the cameras/sensors monitoring its flow around the mannequin.

Mark’s mannequins are still in development but the initial tests look promising. Bringing higher levels of training for medical professionals around the world and increasing procedure success. Mark’s research into the creation of hyper realistic mannequins doesn’t stop at neonatal patients though, with there being potentially wider applications. He goes on to explain:

“​I believe that developing and advancing what we started here can aid medical research in a broader scope. We could potentially create realistic patient models of other body parts to strengthen medical training for emergency procedures and pregnancies.”

3D printing is often talked about as a revolutionary technology, but without substance to the claim, here we can see it in its truest form: providing a solution that no other method could.

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