3-D printing technology at U of M changing surgery preparation

- A medical advancement at the University of Minnesota, which some describe as a game changer, is reshaping the way surgeons are preparing for operations.

3-D printing technology is allowing surgeons to create model organs that look and feel like the real thing.

“It really is a big leap forward as far as getting realistic organ models in the hands of surgeons,” said lead researcher Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering.  

Unlike 3-D printing of hard plastic model organs, McAlpine and his team have created a way to take a patient's MRI and create an exact model of the prostate. Custom ink or silicone allows the model to feel and react like a real prostate, specific to an individual patient. 

“So now surgeons can practice on it, they can suture it, they can cut it and give them a chance to do rehearsal beforehand and reduce medical error,” said McAlpine. 

The 3-D models are smart too, equipped with electronic sensors which are also 3-D printed. 

“This actually gives electronic feedback depending on the pressure of the surgical tool that’s applied,” said McAlpine.

The idea for the lifelike 3-D models came to the Department of Mechanical Engineering from a former urologist at the U of M who did not have an accurate model of a prostate he needed. 

“To be able to replicate the textures as well as the complexity of how the tissues are structured and also replicate the mechanical structures are really important when you are interacting with it,” said Dr. Robert Sweet, a urologist at the University of Washington who previously worked at the University of Minnesota.

Those working on the project look forward to making more complicated organs in the future. 

“To even save the patient’s life and help the surgeons - that’s the most exciting part,” said Kaiyan Qiu, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper.

The possibilities go even further. McAlpine believes this is a step toward replacing certain organs altogether with synthetic bionic organs in patients. 

“I call this the Human X project," said McAlpine. "You think of iPhone X, this is the Human X project where you start to integrate electronics onto the body. You start replace biology with bionic systems, bionic organs, give humans augmented capabilities. I think that’s where the future lies and this 3-D printing technology allows us to do that." 

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