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Printing Health Care Solutions in Three Dimensions

The process begins with a container of plastic or liquid photopolymer. From there, the magic begins as the material is placed onto a platform, where it then cools and solidifies, or a laser moves across the platform, solidifying the layer. Another layer is applied. And another. And another. Until a complete model or prototype is produced.

3-D PrintImagine: a 3-D printer that can print medical devices, or produce exact replicas of human anatomy, based on medical imaging. Such printers exist today, and one such printer can be found at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital (HDVCH) and another at Spectrum Health Innovations (SHI). The hope, says Eric Van Middendorp, MSE, biomedical engineer at SHI, is to someday have several such 3-D printers available for the Spectrum Health System in a centralized 3-D printing lab.

“We would love to expand our capabilities as demand grows, and demand is growing fast,” Van Middendorp says. “SHI is partnering with HDVCH, and they are currently doing the segmentation, converting 2-D scans to create a 3-D model of an area of interest. We then work together to 3-D print the patient-specific models.”

The printers can produce flexible or rigid models, or with isolated parts flexible while other parts remain rigid. Models can also be printed in color, if needed.

Created directly from patient scans and medical images, 3-D printed models can be used for surgical planning or resident training. Physicians can review the model with the surgical team or even test device fit and placement prior to surgery. Residents can practice on models, and even cut into a model, to practice prior to surgery. The possibilities are endless.

Another application is patient education. “Drawings can only go so far. 3-D printing improves patient understanding, because it helps give patients a visual, especially for rare defects,” Van Middendorp says. “Seeing a full-scale model and holding it in their own hands can help patients understand their own unique anatomy and how it relates to an upcoming procedure during a consultation.”

Hospitals have begun to use 3-D printers for other medical uses as well, such as printing prostheses or patient-specific, customized medical implants, guides, and tools. There is also growing research in the field of bio printing, using cells and cell-friendly biomaterials to create or print biological scaffolds and tissues such as skin, cartilage, and bone, possibly even organs.

“The printers are quickly advancing in their capabilities,” says Van Middendorp. “And they are always getting faster. Currently, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to 3-D print a model, or up to about two weeks for the entire process. It can be expedited if needed.”

SHI is currently involved in a pilot program to determine how much demand and interest there is throughout Spectrum Health to use 3-D printing for patient-specific models and other solutions. Working with Van Middendorp on this pilot is Scott Daigger, MBA, NPDP, senior project specialist, SHI.

“We are talking with physicians across the organization to determine their needs and evaluate the possible need for dedicated space for more 3-D printers,” Daigger says. “We’re hearing a lot of interest in using this new technology. By early 2019, we hope to have a strong idea of what we need to meet demands.”

Want to learn more about 3-D printing? Read our blog post “Out of Nothing…Something” 3-D Printing