3D Ops and Erlanger start hospital-wide 3-D printing study
Chattanooga startup 3D Operations just announced a partnership with Erlanger Health System that’s both a giant step for the company and the next, logical step in its growth.
A little over a year ago, 3D Operations was a 2014 Gig Tank competitor putting a company together around the idea of converting CT and MRI scans into 3-D printed models surgeons could use to plan surgery, educate patients and train medical students. Two weeks ago, 3D Ops and Erlanger announced the world’s first hospital-wide study of 3-D printing patient-specific anatomy as a pre-surgical planning tool for every clinical department.
Over the next six months, all surgical departments of the hospital, which is the nation’s seventh largest public hospital system and is affiliated with the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, will explore how 3-D printing can be used to improve surgical outcomes.
At a press conference announcing the study, surgeon Christopher Keel, D.O., and imaging specialist Blaise Baxter, M.D., passed around a 3-D printed replica of a kidney covered with tumors.
Printed from 2-dimensional CAT images, the kidney itself is rendered in clear plastic, and many golf ball-sized tumors project out from it in gray-blue plastic. It’s easy to see that most tumors are clustered in one area but do not go deep inside the kidney. Another tumor is only near the surface. A key question is whether to remove the entire kidney or only part of it. Many people could do fine with a single kidney, but this patient is diabetic, so losing one kidney would probably mean a lifetime of dialysis.
Just looking at the 2-D CAT scan, that tumor geography was less apparent, said Baxter. “Probably most places would have said ‘there’s too many tumors here, I think you need to take the whole kidney out.’ So this was a very important thing for that patient.”
While Keel may have recommended saving the kidney even without the 3-D model, he noted, “It definitely made it easier for me to say to the patient, ‘I’m looking through this right now at the light, and I can see exactly where the tumor goes. I know I just have to cut right here.’”
Perhaps more importantly, using the 3-D model decreased the time needed for surgery and probably decreased blood loss, according to Keel.
The study will also investigate potential cost savings from using 3-D modeling, according to Baxter. “Part of the model is to show how this can be done in a cost-effective way for the patient. Some of the major cost savings would be in converting to maybe a minimally invasive approach versus a more expensive surgery.”
The six-month study will also explore how physicians work with the 3-D printing technology compared to the more familiar 2-D imaging. Baxter explained that imaging specialists doing 2-D scans usually follow standardized protocols, but 3-D imaging requires a more custom approach.
“The radiologist is custom designing those studies to try to bring out the information that would be important for them to build the models and for the surgeon to plan the treatment,” Baxter said.
Baxter explained that 3-D models of organs can be printed from any 2-D imaging study.
“We can use this for any type of pathology that we can image, which is essentially everything now,” said Baxter. “So any specialty, we can go to them and say, ‘Where would this be particularly helpful for you?’ That’s never been done.”
Because this is unexplored territory, one of the goals of the study is to uncover how 3-D imaging can be used in practice by all surgical specialties. “Hopefully, what we’re going to do is see all the different clinical needs that the different specialties will come up with, and then we’ll roll this out on a larger scale,” Baxter added.
He has already received clinical interest from pediatric surgeons at Erlanger who work with cranial reconstruction in children whose skull sutures close prematurely.
“The skull can’t grow in a normal way, so they have to plan in a 3-D way how they can expand the skull through surgery,” said Baxter. “So that’s very helpful in their world. The effect of their treatment is something that can be followed and modeled in 3-D.”
He also sees ready applications in neurosurgery and neurovascular surgery, but said applications cut across every specialty that has a surgical approach, concluding, “I think there will be a lot of surgical treatments and procedures that when we understand the actual anatomy of that patient—are able to look at it in three dimensions—we will be able to offer them a lot more procedures that are sparing of the underlying function of the organ that’s involved.”
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic web site in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com. He splits his time between Chattanooga and Brooklyn.