Learn more about modern 3D printing and how it is changing the medical landscape.

For parents, seeing the first ultrasound image of their baby is one of life’s important milestones. It’s also one of the most useful tools for assessing a baby’s health.

Now ultrasound images are becoming even more useful. Through the application of 3D printing, digital information from an ultrasound could be used to create plastic models of a baby’s features. Though not yet widely available, doctors can use these models to help assess potential birth defects.

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If We Can Scan it, We Can Model It

“If we can scan it, we can make a 3D model of it,” says Chad Dehmer, director of business development for UPMC Imaging Services. His team, led by Anish Ghodadra, MD, medical director of the 3D Printing Program, turns data from ultrasound and CT scans into 3D printed models that you — and your doctor — can hold in your hand.

In the world of manufacturing, 3D printers build solid objects like gears, castings, and rocket nozzles. In medicine, the technology is being used to build custom medical devices such as surgical guides, implants, and prostheses. At UPMC, the focus is on a new area: creating 3D models of organs, tumors, and other internal structures as guides for surgery and other types of care.

Modeling Better Surgery

In cancer treatment, highly accurate, highly detailed 3D models of tumors can now be generated directly from CT scans. These models can help surgeons and their patients make decisions about tumor resection surgery.

“A surgeon wants the clearest possible picture before surgery in order to visualize every move of the operation,” says Dehmer. “They are often doing these operations laparoscopically, so the model helps them perform the procedure with more confidence and accuracy.” Dehmer finds that the models also are useful beyond the operating room. “They can be valuable in helping patients understand a procedure,” says Dehmer.

At UPMC, this 3D imaging technique has been applied by doctors in a broad range of medical specialties including obstetrics, oncology, plastic surgery, neurosurgery, orthopaedics, endocrinology, urology, transplant, cardiology, and otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat).

A Surgical Guide That Fits Like a Glove

Creating surgical guides for operations such as knee implants is now being explored. Surgeons use guides for precise, accurate cutting and drilling, and to protect surrounding tissue. Instead of the standard sizes offered by medical equipment manufacturers, 3D printing brings in-house the potential for doctors to create guides that are customized for each patient’s unique anatomy.

The Shape of Things to Come

Whether it’s navigating a complex tumor operation, guiding a hip implant, or simply giving patients and families a better understanding of a procedure, UPMC has moved medical 3D printing from “What if” to “Why not.” “We believe 3D printing will be the standard of care in the very near future for a host of surgical procedures,” says Dehmer.