There’s even the potential that such artificial models may someday become the real deal – “bionic organs” used to replace damaged biological organs.
The Minnesota researchers published their work today in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies. They’re seeking a patent for the technology.
“The organ models we are 3D printing are almost a perfect replica in terms of the look and feel of an individual’s organ, using our custom-built 3D printers,” said lead researcher Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, in a university news release.
“We think these organ models could be ‘game-changers’ for helping surgeons better plan and practice for surgery. We hope this will save lives by reducing medical errors during surgery,” McAlpine said.
McAlpine is among a group of researchers worldwide who have been pioneering custom-built 3D printers that go beyond the capabilities of printers presently on the market. Think software-backed printing on an XYZ platform with multiple materials at once at scales ranging from nano to macro levels.
McAlpine has been able to entirely print devices, including electronics. While at Princeton, he garnered attention for 3-D printing an ear out of living cells, while printing an antenna inside the ear at the same time. Earlier this year, McAlpine and his colleagues announced 3D printed tiny stretchable electronic sensory devices that could enable bionic skin for surgical robots – or a new class of wearables directly printed onto human skin.
In the latest advance out of the McAlpine Research Group, the research team took MRI scans and tissue samples from three patients’ prostates, tested the tissue and then used customized silicone-based inks “tuned” to precisely match the mechanical properties of each patient’s prostate tissue. A custom-built 3D printer then built a prostate model out of the customized inks. The researchers attached soft, 3D printed sensors to the organ models so that they could observe how the model prostates reacted to compression tests and the application of various surgical tools.
“The sensors could give surgeons real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue. This could change how surgeons think about personalized medicine and pre-operative practice,” said Kaiyan Qiu, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper.
The Minnesota researchers think their method could be used to 3D print lifelike models of more complicated organs, with multiple inks mimicking the properties of multiple tissues. Certain inks might even replicate the feel of a particular tumor or deformity inside a specific person’s organ, allowing surgeons to better plan how to remove or correct the problem.
McAlpine even suspects that the research could someday lead to the creation of “bionic organs” for transplants.
“I call this the ‘Human X’ project,” McAlpine said. “It sounds a bit like science fiction, but if these synthetic organs look, feel and act like real tissue or organs, we don’t see why we couldn’t 3D print them on demand to replace real organs.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) – including the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute – funded most of artificial prostate model research at the University of Minnesota.
“This project illustrates how successfully mechanical engineers and medical doctors can collaborate and develop novel and promising technologies for medical treatment,” Šeila Selimović, PhD, director of the NIBIB program in biosensors, said in an NIH news release.
“The combination of this novel and unique 3D printer with the prostate glands MRIs and prostate tissue samples is what enabled the researchers to create a 3D printed prostate mimicking the real organ in terms of shape, size, and texture,” Selimović said.
There appears to be a demand for 3D printing materials that more closely mimic the properties of real human tissue and organs. 3D printer company Stratasys, for example, has its new Stratasys Biomimics material boasts better elasticity and strength.