Although the human anatomy follows the same basic structure, each person has slight differences that can disrupt the accuracy or timing of surgical repairs. In the past, surgeons were only able to rely on imaging results to plan out surgeries on injured or ill patients. The images do not allow for test fitments or customization of the necessary repair materials. Luckily, 3D scanning and printing companies have entered the medical realm to support surgeons in their pursuit of perfection.

The 3D printing companies can create organs and bone structures using precise laser scanning equipment, computer aided design software and reverse engineering tactics. Surgeons can use this innovative technology to create printed body parts in the exact right shape and size for the patient in question. The components can be used for surgical planning or direct replacement of worn or damaged structures.

Surgical Planning

When a deathly ill patient desperately needs an organ replacement, surgeons have to work with the available organ donations to save that individuals life. Replacing the failing organ of a child with one derived from an adult donor, for example, poses significant risks and puts the surgeons’ skills to the ultimate test. If surgeons cannot make the organ work for that patient, they may lose both the patient and the donated tissue. The best way to ensure the success of the procedure is with careful planning well before entering the operating room.

Thanks to recent technological advances in the 3D scanning and printing industry, surgeons can plan out the procedure in detail using replica structures derived from both the ill patient and the donated organ. Surgeons used this innovative planning technique to implant an adult kidney into a severely ill infant suffering from kidney failure.  The assigned surgeons carefully went through the surgery from start to finish using 3D printouts of the donated organ and the body cavity space of the recipient. Several surgical techniques and processes were tested beforehand to ensure the success of the procedure and reduce potential complications during the recovery period.

Bodily Reconstruction

Patients who suffer traumatic injury, such as burn wounds, often need years of reconstructive surgery to regain their lost features. Congenital deformities also require years of surgical correction to repair the malformed structures. One such deformity, microtia, results in the incomplete development of the outer ear. Without this structure, patients not only suffer from a lack of self-esteem and confidence, but also have hearing difficulties throughout life.

Surgeons can now use 3D scanning and printing technology to replicate the human ear and even grow the implant tissue in that form. The scanning and printing equipment creates the plastic mold in the exact shape and size of the ear tissue. Biomedical engineers then inject collagen cells into the mold to provide a framework for the cartilage material. Within a few days, surgeons can take the fully formed ear tissue and stitch it in place on the patient. Even before the tissues heal together, patients instantly notice an improvement in their ability to hear the world around them.

Bone Replacement

Surgeons are using 3D printing and scanning technology to replicate bone tissue decimated by illness or injury. Depending on the patient’s needs, the printed bone material may act as a framework for natural tissue growth or permanently replace damaged structures. Instead of using printed plastic to shape cells in a lab environment, as with the ear mold, the printing mechanism constructs the bone framework out of dissolvable minerals. After implanting the scaffold in the patient’s body, the healthy cells start to replace the printed minerals with protein based cell growth.

For complex structures, surgeons may elect to implant a 3D printed prosthesis to fully replace the damaged bone material. A patient suffering from a rare form of cancer recently had this procedure performed to replace tumor ridden vertebrae in his neck. By using a precisely designed bodily component, the surgery restored both his quality and quantity of life without lasting complications. Surgeons hope to extend this bone replacement procedure to complex joints to eliminate arthritis and other debilitating illnesses related to ongoing degeneration.

Skull Protection

In the event of severe trauma to the head, surgeons may need to remove a portion of the skull to allow for swelling. Surgical placement of shunts and other corrective devices allow excess fluid to flow away from the brain to promote a full recovery. Unfortunately, this process can take months to complete and by that time, surgeons cannot replace the removed skull piece. Until recently, surgeons had to fit a generic plate over the open space to restore the protective nature of the skull.

3d scanning skull

Skull printed by UCL medical physics researchers

Today, surgeons can have a custom plate printed for the patient using the removed portion of the skull as a guide for the scanning equipment. The custom 3D scanned and printed plate fits right in place to speed up both the surgical correction procedure and the recovery process. The custom skull piece remains permanently in place for the rest of the patient’s life without any further complications.

Continued Advancements

Each year, surgeons and biomedical engineers work toward improving patient prognoses through the use of high tech 3D scanning and printing technology. The created devices and techniques improve surgical success rates and reduce recovery times for total patient wellness. Additional advancements are on the horizon due to continued discoveries in medical labs and operating rooms. As individuals gain increased understanding about the success rates of 3D printed devices in the surgical realm, even more patients will select procedures that utilize these technological marvels.

Medical support professionals, such as pharmacists and physical therapists, will soon start using 3D printing in their practices as well.  Professionals all across the entire medical industry have the opportunity to fully revamp the tools and techniques used to restore patient health and wellbeing. In fact, the 3D scanning and printing revolution has the ability to improve patient outcomes while reducing operational costs across the board. As a result, this technological advancement will change the face of medicine much in the way tool sterilization, surgical anesthesia and organ transplants did in the past.