3-D Printer Makes Medical Models

Forget documents, spreadsheets, and photographs. The 3-D printer at Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute can print a model of a human heart.

“You can think of it a lot like an inkjet printer at home, just with an added dimension,” says Ryan Klatte, a senior research engineer. But when Klatte explains exactly what the printer can do, it is clear this is not your average inkjet.

Klatte calls it a “rapid prototyping technology.” The printer uses CT scan images to create highly detailed, complex replicas of a patient’s organs, vessels, and joints, among other options. These models help physicians visualize a problem and test devices before going into surgery. They can see exactly what a diseased aorta looks like, for example. Or they can model a knee replacement before going to work on the real thing. In addition, researchers can request replicas to aid them in their studies.

“Without 3-D printing, we couldn’t evolve the models,” says Roy K. Greenberg, MD, Director of Endovascular Research. “We wouldn’t have the visualization of being able to understand how these devices are going to fit inside someone with very complex anatomy. So the 3-D printer allows us to hold that anatomy in our hands.”

Here’s how it works: The printer shoots out a liquid resin, which is then “cured” by an ultraviolet lamp to create a solid material. The models are built layer by layer. If you think of each layer as a 2-D printout, the extra dimension comes when you stack all of those layers together. Once completed, a water jet blasts off a brittle outer support layer to reveal the replica. These replicas are so complex that they can even include moving parts.

Speed is another advantage of the 3-D printer, Klatte says. “We can turn these parts around either the same day or the next day for researchers here at the Cleveland Clinic,” he says.

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