Robotics

3D printing a new path to life-saving medicine

Michael McAlpine in his lab.

Inquiry, December 13, 2018

The future of surgery may be summed up with a slight twist on a familiar adage—“practice twice, cut once.”

A team of University of Minnesota researchers has developed a way to 3D print replicas of individual people’s organs, providing a customized model for surgeons to practice on before going into surgery. The research, led by Michael McAlpine, MNDrive faculty and associate professor of mechanical engineering, and his colleagues in the U’s College of Science and Engineering, can help surgeons understand the anatomical and mechanical differences in organs between one person and the next—and that, in turn, could lead to fewer surgical errors and potentially save lives.

McAlpine and his team have started with replicas of the prostate gland. Using a mix of custom-developed, silicone-based inks, the team “tuned” their replicas to match the anatomy, mechanical properties, and tactile feel of real prostates, which they gathered information on using MRI scans and tissue samples. The team then equipped their replicas with 3D-printed sensors to help surgeons gauge how real organs would respond during the procedure.

“Electrical sensors give quantifiable feedback, so surgeons can see a number that represents the pressure they’re applying,” McAlpine said. “They can tell how much is too much and ease back before getting there.”

Going forward, the researchers hope to print 3D models of more complicated and individualized organs, such as those with a cancer growth or a deformity, to allow surgeons to experiment with different approaches.