3D printing has revolutionized the manufacturing market, but what about medicine? While some researchers are working on developing 3D-printed tracheas and bionic limbs, doctors at Miami Children’s Hospital are using the technology to create organ models that can be used for practice before a big surgery. What’s more, the innovative initiative saved a four-year-old girl’s life.
Adaenelie Gonzalez is only four years old, but just two weeks ago, she was facing death head on. The tiny tike was born with total anomalous pulmonary venous connection, a rare congenital heart disease that resulted in inadequate connectivity between her heart and lungs – making it difficult for her to breathe and resulting in a weakened immune system. By six months of age, Adaenelie had lived through two open-heart surgeries and two weeks ago, she faced a third. Her mother took her to Miami Children’s Hospital because her daughter was having breathing difficulties and could barely walk. The doctors said she only had a few days or weeks to live, until the hospital’s Director of Cardiovascular Surgery, Dr. Redmond Burke, and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Nancy Dobrolet decided to give 3D printing a try.
Working with Materialise’s Mimics Innovation Suite software, the team of doctors created an exact replica of the human heart, which featured each and every pulmonary artery, vein and nerve. The model allowed the doctors to “practice” the surgery on the model before doing the real thing. Burke said the model made all of the difference in the world. He explained that the different between planning the surgery using the model instead of traditional MRI imaging was similar to the difference between learning how to throw a football by looking at a picture versus holding it in your hand.
Burke said using the model was the perfect addition to prepping for the young girl’s surgery, and it may have made all of the difference. During the surgery, he and Dobrolet replaced the missing parts of Adaenelie’s heart with pieces of a donor’s heart to connect the girl’s heart to her lungs, and it was a success. The surgery went extremely well and in one week, little Adaelnelie was already out of bed and coloring. Her respiratory capability should continue to improve over time and the child’s life expectancy has greatly improved as a result. No one can say whether or not the surgery would have been a success without the help of 3D printing, but Burke certainly believes it helped.
3D printing isn’t just being used to construct organ models, however, sometimes it’s used to construct the organs themselves. One of the most innovational uses of 3D printers is the construction of organs. There are now bio-printers that extrude human cells. Many researchers are currently using this technology in the hope of developing viable organs for the many people waiting on the organ donor list. Some researchers, however, use normal PLA filament to create a scaffold of an organ and later cover it with human cells, like researchers from Feinstein Institute recently did to create a functional tracheal surgical implant.
Whatever the method, biologists everywhere are proving 3D printing is worth more than just low-level manufacturing.