An international team of researchers has used 3D-printing technology to produce individually-tailored model organs. These dummy organs could one day improve your chances of surviving surgery, by allowing doctors to plan and practice a lifesaving procedure on a realistic replica before putting you to the scalpel.

Surgery is often a matter of life or death. The ability to practice a procedure outside of the operating room on an artificial human, or at least the relevant organ of a patient, can help to prepare a doctor for surgery, and so increase the chances of a patient surviving the procedure.

Not all surgical props are born equal, and there are often limitations as well as benefits to practicing on an artificial human, as they often don't accurately represent the behavior of their biological counterpart during an operation. For example, some are made from plastics that are much tougher than the tissues of a real organ, and so do not allow physicians to practice certain aspects of an operation, such as suturing a wound.

Last year, we heard about a team of physicians at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) that took a fascinating approach to providing a realistic surgical simulation by melding technology with arts and crafts. The end result was a partially hand-crafted sculpture of an organ, or set of organs, that looked and felt real to the touch, and even bled when cut.

Now, a newly-published study has detailed the development of a different approach to creating artificial practice organs that leans heavily on a custom-built 3D printer instead.

For the purposes of the study, the team printed a series of lifelike human prostates from uniquely tailored silicone-based "inks." These inks were designed to mimic the tissue properties and mechanics of a real prostate based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans and organ samples taken from three study participants.

The researchers created an artificial prostate for each of the three subjects, and fitted the models with 3D-printed sensors that allowed the team to collect data on how the faux organ behaved when subjected to compression tests, and when prodded and poked by various surgical tools.

It was found that the man-made organs mimicked the feel, look, mechanical properties and behavior of a real prostate to a high degree of accuracy. The ability to create a tailored dummy organ could be extremely helpful for physicians attempting to predict the potential consequences of a surgery, stemming from the specific characteristics of an individual's organ.

Moving forward, the team hopes to create more complex organ models using multiple inks that could, for example, be used to practice the removal of tumours. In the long term, the artificial organs could even be used to save lives by utilizing them in a more direct manner.

"If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create 'bionic organs' for transplants," comments lead researcher of the study, Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering. "I call this the 'Human X' project. 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."

A paper on the study has been published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.

Source: University of Minnesota