Spring 2018

Surgical practice gets a more real feel

Ever wish your surgeon could do a practice run before the scalpel touches your skin? 

Well, a team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota has now used 3-D printing to create lifelike artificial organ models that mimic the exact anatomical structure, mechanical properties, and look and feel of real organs. These patient-specific organ models can be used for practice surgeries and stand to improve outcomes for patients around the world. 

Researchers used a custom-built 3-D printer to print silicone-based inks that can be “tuned” to precisely match the mechanical properties and look and feel of each patient’s prostate tissue.

“We hope this will save lives by reducing medical errors during surgery,” says Michael McAlpine, Ph.D., holder of the Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professorship of Mechanical Engineering in the U’s College of Science and Engineering. 

Most 3-D–printed organ models today are made using hard plastics or rubbers. But there are significant differences in the way these organs look and feel compared with their biological counterparts: they can be too hard to cut or suture, and they don’t provide quantitative feedback. 

For their study, published in December in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies, U researchers took MRI scans and tissue samples from three patients’ prostates. The team tested the tissue and developed customized silicone-based inks that can be “tuned” to precisely match the mechanical properties of each patient’s prostate tissue. 

They then attached soft, 3-D–printed sensors to the organ models, which can give surgeons realtime feedback on how much force they can use without damaging the tissue. 

In the future, investigators hope to use this new method to 3-D–print lifelike models of more complicated organs. They also hope to someday explore applications beyond surgical practice. 

“If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create ‘bionic organs’ for transplants,” McAlpine says.

Watch a video about 3-D-printed organ models.