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Phoenix Campus’ printing club is visualizing health care in 3D

Jun 1, 2022
5 min Read
Blake Ursch
Image
Students hold 3D-printed organs
Creighton students Shayne Sumida (left) and Eugene Moon hold examples of 3D-printed organs. Students at Creighton's Phoenix campus are using 3D printing to render patients' anatomy in tangible models. 

 

A medical condition is oftentimes an invisible adversary. One that exists beneath the skin, seen only in occasional glimpses captured by X-rays or CT scans.  

But what if you could see your diagnosis in three dimensions? What if you could hold it in your hand and examine it carefully? How much more in control would you feel? 

At Creighton University Health Sciences Campus – Phoenix, medical students in the on-campus 3D Printing Club are exploring how to make this a reality for both patients and physicians. Using the latest imaging and printing techniques, students in the club are creating 3D models of individual patients’ anatomy that physicians can use to plan and prepare treatment.  

“For a lot of patients, it’s hard to understand what’s going on when they get a new diagnosis,” says Eugene Moon, a fourth-year medical student at Creighton’s Phoenix campus and founding president of the 3D printing club. “Although we sometimes have general models to explain it, showing them a 3D model of their specific anatomy, I think, does a lot more to illustrate for them what’s happening inside the body.” 

The Formlabs 3D printers on Creighton's Phoenix campus
The Formlabs printers on Creighton's Phoenix campus.

The idea for the club began when Moon, a hobbyist with his own 3D printer at home, began making figurines for his pediatric patients. Eventually, he learned from Randy Richardson, MD, professor in the Department of Radiology and dean of the School of Medicine regional campus in Phoenix, that the brand-new facility has 3D printers of its own.  

The club, which Moon founded in October of 2021, now has more than a dozen members working to incorporate 3D printing into their medical studies. Much of their work focuses on learning how to convert two-dimensional CT scans into three-dimensional renderings for the printer to read.  

Once the 3D file has been created, the printing can begin. Models are printed in transparent or opaque resin with buttresses attached to keep the figure from collapsing in on itself, Moon says. Once printing is complete, the buttresses must be removed, and the resinous model hardened using ultraviolet light.  

Richardson, in fact, has long been utilizing 3D printing to model congenital heart defects in infants for parents trying to understand their baby’s heart condition. Thanks to a grant from the St. Joseph’s Foundation, Richardson was able to secure four 3D printers for the Phoenix campus to continue and expand this type of work.  

We have better outcomes – the surgical times are less, and the patient outcomes are better – when we use these surgical models in presurgical planning.
— Randy Richardson, MD

“What I’ve found is that everyone likes it,” Richardson says. “The pediatricians like it, the residents like it and the surgeons love it."

In addition to helping patients visualize their own medical conditions, 3D printing organs on soft, flesh-like material allows surgeons to plan and practice procedures on a specific patient's anatomy well before they make the first incision, Richardson says. Previously, surgeons could only practice on expensive general models or cadavers.  

In one example, Richardson recounts, a woman had a heart attack which caused a hole to form between two chambers of her heart. Interventionists were able to practice putting in a closure device on a model of the heart before trying it on the patient. The real surgery took significantly less time because doctors knew exactly what size of closure device to use.  

“We’ve done a three-year study and showed that actually, we have better outcomes – the surgical times are less, and the patient outcomes are better – when we use these surgical models in presurgical planning,” Richardson says.  

Closeup of 3D printed organs on a table

In addition to cardiac cases, Moon says the club is beginning to expand its reach, working with physicians in general surgery, family medicine, trauma, orthopedics and OBGYN to explore ways to use models in patient care and physician training. The club has also been working to produce models of breast tissue for physicians and nurses at St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix to practice ultrasound imaging and cyst aspiration.  

And this is only the beginning, Moon says.  

“I firmly believe that medicine advances with technology, and right now, 3D printing is on the cutting edge of technology, and it’s still in its infancy state,” he says. “Our organization is trying to anticipate its future integration into medical care and be on the forefront of that development in our future careers.”