3D printer turns out organs that act like the real thing

Synthetic organs printed by the Digital Anatomy printer could replace cadavers as training tools for medical students.

A new 3D printer has the software and material to create a synthetic heart that is as squishy as the real thing. Stratasys announced the new printer today, along with three new materials and new software to power the whole platform.

The J750 Digital Anatomy 3D Printer turns out hearts as close to the real organ as a printer can get. As life-like as the synthetic organ appears, the box for a new 3D printed heart does carry a warning: "Synthetic Organ: Not For Transplant."  

The 3D heart has the same physical properties as a human organ as well as the same biomechanical characteristics. This will allow doctors to print 3D models that are as close to the real organ as technology can get.

The GrabCad Print Digital Anatomy software powers everything, said Scott Drikakis, medical segment leader at Stratasys.  

 "If there is a defect in the heart, a structural abnormality, with this solution, we can 3D print a synthetic digital twin of that patient," Drikakis said.

A surgeon also can replicate the physical characteristics of a patient's illness, such as calcifications in veins and arteries.

In conjunction with the printer, Stratasys released three new materials – TissueMatrix, GelMatrix, and BoneMatrix. The new TissueMatrix is the softest material available in 3D printing. Can you add descriptions of what GelMatric and BoneMatrix are or do?

"The advance in material science for us is making them softer and more flexible and having more control to blend the materials based on the desired outcome," Drikakis said. "Now we are making functional models with the same biomechanical properties as a human heart."

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The flexibility of 3D printing materials is ranked on a Shore scale: The higher the number, the more rigid the material. The TissueMatrix has a Shore value of 00, meaning it is about as squishy as a gummy bear. Most materials on the market currently have a Shore value between 28 and 30.

Drikakis said Stratasys developed the new printing system based on customer requests for more realistic organs. During the four-year development process, the company's top priority was to make the software as user friendly as possible.

"We have a team of six people whose sole job is to train customers on how to create models and incorporate 3D printing into their work," he said.

A surgeon starts with a CT scan or an MRI and segments the image. This process marks the sections of the image that contain the organ to be replicated by the 3D printer. Sections of the scan that show surrounding tissue or bone are discarded. This segmentation is loaded into the software and printing begins.

Printing a standard heart model takes between six and eight hours. Printing a thigh bone can take up to 16 hours.

Drikakis said that the company has been working with hospitals and medical device makers for four years to develop the digital anatomy printer.

Improved surgical training

One goal for the new product is to change how surgeons are trained. Currently, when medical students learn a procedure, they practice with cadavers. Each cadaver can cost anywhere from $1,300 to $5,000. Over the last few years, the supply of cadavers has dropped, due in part to an increase in organ donations. As more individual donate hearts or lungs, that means fewer bodies for medical students to practice on. In addition, when cadavers are available, the bodies may not have the particular problem that a medical student is addressing with a specific procedure.

Drikakis said that more than 100 hospitals in America are using the printer and 85 of the top 100 global medical device companies are as well.There are 3D printers in use at more than 20 VA hospitals as well as the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic,and Boston Children's Hospital. Drikakis said that hospitals also use service bureaus to outsource 3D printing projects.  

Faster to market 

In addition to improving physician training, 3D printing can help medical device companies get products to market faster.

"The med device market as a whole has adopted 3D printing more broadly than hospitals, but from a surgical planning and clinical training perspective, hospitals are quickly catching up," he said.

In the healthcare world, if a device or procedure doesn't have a billing code, that is a big barrier to adoption of new products and techniques.
 
"That's one of the largest limiting factors to hospitals not doing 3D printing--lack of reimbursement," Drikakis said.
 
Radiological Society of North America and the American College of Radiology have created a patient registry to quantify the value of 3D printing.The registry will include information about the patient, the 3D model, and the surgical outcomes. Researchers will analyze the data to see what value the 3D model adds to the procedure. The goal is to use the data to get a billing code so that hospitals can get paid for using the technology to improve patient care.

Drikakis said that the company is launching the new printer with cardiac, vascular, and orthopedic applications. Stratasys will add new applications every year for the next three years.

"Our investment in healthcare is only increasing," he said.

The company's three core markets are aerospace, automotive and healthcare companies.

Also see

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The J750 Digital Anatomy 3D Printer turns out hearts as close to the real organ as a printer can get.

Image: Veronica Combs