This week cdmalcolm posted a great article here at Embodi3d.com on how 3D-printed replicas of patient’s organs are helping surgeons plan for complicated operations. Today I'd like to supplement this topic by talking about the advances 3D printing can bring to medical education, specifically by recreating human models for students to study and dissect.
Currently, the golden standard for teaching medical students the anatomy (overall structure) of the human body involves dissecting and observing cadavers – recently deceased humans who have given their bodies to science. However, obtaining and storing these bodies can be difficult for a number of reasons. For example, many cultural and religious beliefs preclude people from donating their bodies, and even in countries with strong donation programs bodies with rare diseases (by their very definition) are hard to find. Even when sufficient cadavers are donated, the process of preserving them to prevent natural decomposition can be costly.
New technology comprising a mixed approach of 3D printing and traditional manufacturing can solve many of these problems by recreating accurate and numerous replicas of human anatomy with minimal expense. A recent publication in the January/Februrary edition of the journal “Anatomical Sciences Education” highlighted a prototype for this technology; the team from The University College Dublin in Ireland were able to recreate a portion of the hip, with 3D-printed bone and blood vessels surrounded by a flesh-like filler and covered in a synthetic skin. On top of this, they were able to connect a pump to the blood vessels to mimic the typical human circulatory system. The result wasn't fancy - the components were placed in a Tupperware container with holes for the tubing - but it had most of the necessary components for students to learn, and more importantly, obtain valuable practical experience.
The advantage of using 3D printing for these models is that they can be changed to reflect the anatomy of specific diseases. For example, atherosclerosis occurs when blood vessels narrow, and it is an important factor in heart disease. In the prototype above, the team were able to 3D-print replicas of blood vessels from a healthy patient, and one with atherosclerosis - the vessels with atherosclerosis were a lot thicker, and students were able to assess this using ultrasound. The students were also able to perform basic techniques to locate the vessels via syringe, similar to how they may be required to set up an IV drip. And since the models only need to mimic the qualities of human organs rather than making functional tissue (see my previous article on the challenges of this), the models can be made relatively simply, and from materials that do not degrade over time like human flesh does.
It might seem like a reconstruction of the human body would never be able to replicate the experience of learning from a true human body, however the results of the study above and previous work by The Centre for Human Anatomy Education in Australia showed that 3D printed models are just as good as cadavers for teaching students the principles of anatomy. And thus the future of manufactured lifelike bodies for teaching seems bright - indeed, one could imagine that many trending technologies could be integrated with these models to provide teaching experiences that surpass the current standard delivered by cadavers. Digital sensors are rapidly becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous in technology, and these could be incorporated into anatomical models to provide feedback to students during practical tasks. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are also trending with many potential application for medicine. Perhaps in the future, manufactured human anatomical models will be integrated with AR, in a way that replicates the experience of operating on real-life patients.
And so, 3D printing technology seems poised to replace the long-standing use of cadavers for medical education, and soon many medical students will be able to sigh with relief at not having to prepare themselves to touch and dissect decomposing, smelly bodies. The inexpensive production of realistic bodies will give students better access to practical hands-on education, better preparing them for their eventual roles dealing with real patients.