The soft glow of Amy Alexander's alarm clock in the darkness toyed with her attempt to fall back to sleep. Her thoughts wandered to the job she left on the printer the night before. Knowing she wouldn't rest until she knew it was running smoothly, Amy headed into work early.
As part of the Anatomic Modeling Lab at Mayo Clinic, Amy, a biomedical engineer, pressed print the day before on a life-sized 3D model of a 35-year-old man's face for a surgeon preparing to repair a misaligned jaw.
The model, which took about 12 hours to complete, ran through the night to be ready in time. It held the key to the surgeon's preparation to restore the man's ability to perform seemingly simple tasks such as eating solid foods.
For this particular craniofacial surgery, the surgeon planned to take three pieces of the patient's leg bone and attach it to the jaw — a procedure he had done many times before. But, because he had a model of the patient's exact facial anatomy, he was able to rehearse the surgery and knew in advance precisely where to make the cuts and what to expect during the operation, making the procedure quicker and less invasive. This surgical simulation supports better outcomes and faster recovery times.
"Medicine is very visual, and 3D models represent another way to look inside a patient, look at the disease," says Jonathan M. Morris, M.D., a neuroradiologist and co-director of Mayo Clinic's 3D modeling lab. "Surgeons can hold, manipulate and see a specific patient's anatomy with a clarity that cannot be replicated in two dimensions on a computer."
Mayo Clinic's journey into 3D anatomical modeling began in 2006 when planning for the complex and critical separation of conjoined twins who shared a liver. The success of the surgery and the usefulness of the anatomical models spurred additional requests for 3D printing. As a result, Mayo Clinic has become a leader in anatomical modeling and 3D printing.
"It's an educational tool we can offer to provide next-level visualization to contribute to precision surgery," says Jane Matsumoto, M.D., radiologist and co-director of Mayo Clinic's 3D Anatomic Modeling Lab.
Mayo Clinic uses 3D models for planning and practicing procedures in all medical specialties. Many surgeons also use the models as educational tools for current and future physicians, and as a visual to explain diagnoses to patients and families and talk through treatment options.
Physician-scientists are also building off of this foundation in regenerative medicine to recreate living tissue in a process called bioprinting. This experimental technology uses a scaffold seeded with cells to mimic tissues such as skin, bone, muscles and valves so patients might someday have a nonmechanical replacement for their damaged tissue. For example, cardiologist Amir Lerman, M.D., Barbara Woodward Lips Professor, is researching bioprinting heart valves to free patients from the need for multiple surgeries or the fear of blood clots.
From tumor resections to facial reconstructions and heart surgeries, 3D models take away guesswork and facilitate communication among physicians and scientists.
"It's a tool we can use to offer individualized care," Dr. Matsumoto says. "The demand for 3D printing at Mayo Clinic is really a reflection of the high level of surgery our surgeons do here."
This article originally appeared in Mayo Clinic Magazine. Read the full story in the Fall 2018 edition.