About two years ago, GE Healthcare teamed up with Arterys to develop an MRI scanning technology that displays images of a patient’s heart in seven dimensions. While that is an impressive task indeed, we know that 3D printed medical models offer patients and doctors a little something extra: the sense of touch. For example, cardiologists at Phoenix Children’s Heart Center discovered that a boy named Kaden had a life-threatening heart condition: the left side was not growing the way it should be. A team of doctors in Boston operated on Kaden, who is fine now, and after the surgery, created and 3D printed “before” and “after” models of his heart, using data from an ultrasound system, so his mother could really get a good look at the defect.
3D printed heart
Erica Endicott explained to GE Reports, “As a parent, it was incredible to get an actual, tangible model of our son’s heart. It helped us better understand the defect.”
3D printed aortic tree
Jimmie Beacham, the chief engineer for advanced manufacturing at GE Healthcare, is working to make sure that moments and models like this become more commonplace. Beacham and his team work at GE’s Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering Center in Wisconsin, and are currently researching ways to efficiently translate images from CT scanners and other machines into 3D printable files, so 3D printed medical models can be produced as quickly as pushing the “Play” button for a movie on Netflix.
Heart CT scan
Beacham said, “Today, when people print organs, it can take anywhere from a week to three weeks to manipulate the data. We want to do it with a click of a button.”
However, making this one-touch 3D model printing a reality will be difficult, due to the vast amount of data in a CT scan. For instance, in just one second, GE’s Revolution CT Scanner can generate and transmit enough data to make up 6,000 Netflix movies. According to Beacham, GE Healthcare currently takes this vast amount of data and converts it into an onscreen image.
“I’m pushing our teams across GE Healthcare to look at how we can create a software package that turns that image into a printable file that can be sent to a 3D printer,” Beacham explained. “We’ve already printed several organs like the liver and the lung. It’s valuable learning.”
3D printed liver
GE’s business unit, GE Additive, which develops 3D printers and other additive manufacturing methods, is working with Beacham and his team to determine if it even makes sense to develop a custom machine that can 3D print organ models out using files derived from the software. Beacham says that “speed is of the essence” here: as we know, the 3D printing industry moves pretty fast, and if he and his team aren’t successful quickly enough, someone else will be instead.
3D printed foot
We heard Erica Endicott’s story above, and have been privy to numerous other stories about people, from patients to families and friends, who find it helpful, and even therapeutic, to look at and touch a 3D printed medical model before or after a procedure. But as much as it can help the patient to get a 3D look at their own organs, it’s even more beneficial for doctors.
Beacham said, “All humans are built a little bit differently. When a surgeon has to go in and do a procedure, they are sometimes surprised by what they find.
Surgeons sometimes have to repeatedly go to a workstation, look at the image on the screen and try to figure out what’s going on. It slows the surgery down and increases the odds of introducing infection or slowing the patient’s recovery time.”
In addition to doctors, Beacham said that GE Healthcare fields requests from radiologists who want to improve the dialogue with their patients by using a 3D printed organ model. This way, patients can see for themselves what’s really going on inside their bodies, and don’t have to take the radiologist’s word for it.
3D printed lungs
“You can show the patient the body part that has the problem. When they hold it in their hands and see it clearly, rather than look at a grayscale 2D image on-screen, they can quickly grasp what needs to be fixed,” explained Beacham.
“I think as people get more informed about health, they will want to be a bigger part of the solution. Helping them see the problem clearly will build more trust between the doctor and the patient. It translates into quicker action.”
[Source/Images: GE Healthcare/GE Reports]