MUSC News Center
Inside the world of 3-D printing with a man on a personal mission
Dawn Brazell | MUSC News Center | January 22, 2016
Photos by Sarah Pack
|Replicas of Rhett Bausmith's skull were printed on two different 3-D printers at MUSC. Surgeons used them to plan his surgical treatment and explain to his family what was to be a very complicated surgery to treat the birth defect craniosynostosis. (Photo Gallery)|
At the punch of a button, Mark Semler can leave the room that houses his lab’s 3-D printer and know when he comes back 24 hours later, he will have a skull.
“You’ve seen MRIs on a screen – that’s a nightmare – you’re trying to figure out what you are seeing. You’re trying to visualize a kid’s 3-D skull. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this is worth a million. This is the patient’s actual skull shape and the issues that are inside. If it can comfort them and give them more information, it’s a very powerful tool.”
“First, it provides the surgeon a true-to-life-size 3-D model of the anatomy to use to plan the procedure. We can print multiples of these models, we can print different sections or cut them apart and reassemble similar to the surgical procedure. It allows the physician to complete several dry runs before actually performing the procedure.”They also serve as important communication tools among the patient, the family, the surgical care team and the physician.
Yost said the main mission of the ATBC is to develop advanced biofabrication techniques, including 3-D printing and bioprinting. “We are to then translate these technological developments into useful tools to improve patient care, improve outcomes and reduce overall health care costs.”Early work in 3-D tissue biofabrication was spearheaded by investigators at Clemson University and MUSC. The lab has a Palmetto Printer, a fully automated bioprinter designed by MUSC and Clemson researchers at the ATBC. It also has a MakerBot Replicator 2 to introduce students to 3-D printing technology.
Among the center’s many accomplishments, it has succeeded in printing microvascular structures using living cells. These structures, measuring 100 microns by 10 millimeters, mimic the design of blood vessels or tissues.
For the creation of the skull for the Bausmith family, the process was to get computerized tomography scan data and reconstruct Rhett’s skull in 3-D using a software package. It cost about $250 to create the model. “We translate the reconstruction into data the printer can understand. We print the anatomy, and we cross-check the anatomical landmark dimensions from the scans and the printed object.”Semler said the process is similar at ZIAN.
ZIAN’s 3-D printer uses a photopolymer material that prints with an accuracy of .004 of an inch. CT scans are fed into software that translates them into stereolithography files that can be read by the 3-D printer. They load the machine with the correct material and print. “It tells you to come back in 24 hours and you come back and scrape the skull off with a spatula and you start cleaning it."
Semler, who has been involved in 3-D printing for 20 years, said 3-D printing is not new. What has radically changed is pricing and software tools to make the technology much more accessible and affordable. His lab has an Objet 30-pro printer that comes with a $60,000 price tag for an upgraded model. It has superior accuracy and ability to print multiple materials, including clear, multiple solid color and high temperature variations. Rhett’s skull cost about $350 in materials to produce.Semler said he’s glad to see the Department of Neurosurgery embrace the technology, especially given the sensitive nature of what they do. “Every teaching hospital should have this type of support. It’s the next frontier, and neurosurgeons are always trying to figure out how the brain works and this is the next technology that can help them do that. They’re inventive.”
3-D printing obviously has a promising future, he said, including new materials that are emerging, such as metals that can be implanted. As 3-D printing becomes more commonplace, it will be easier to get insurance coverage for preoperative planning. The ultimate will be the printing of organs.