Scientists have successfully 3D printed lifelike artificial organ models that mimic the structure, properties and feel of real organs. These patient-specific organ models, which include integrated soft sensors, can be used for practice surgeries to improve surgical outcomes in thousands of patients worldwide, researchers said. “We are developing next-generation organ models for pre- operative practice. The organ models we are 3D printing are almost a perfect replica in terms of the look and feel of an individual’s organ, using our custom-built 3D printers,” said Michael McAlpine, associate professor at the University of Minnesota in the US. “We think these organ models could be ‘game-changers’ for helping surgeons better plan and practice for surgery. We hope this will save lives by reducing medical errors during surgery,” said McAlpine, lead researcher of the study published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.
Currently, most 3D printed organ models are made using hard plastics or rubbers. This limits their application for accurate prediction and replication of the organ’s physical behaviour during surgery. There are significant differences in the way these organs look and feel compared to their biological counterparts. They can be too hard to cut or suture. They also lack an ability to provide quantitative feedback. In this study, the research team took MRI scans and tissue samples from three patients’ prostates. Researchers tested the tissue and developed customised silicone-based inks that can be “tuned” to precisely match the mechanical properties of each patient’s prostate tissue.
These unique inks were used in a 3D printer. The researchers then attached soft, 3D printed sensors to the organ models and observed the reaction of the model prostates during compression tests and the application of various surgical tools.
“The sensors could give surgeons real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue,” said Kaiyan Qiu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota. “This could change how surgeons think about personalised medicine and pre-operative practice,” said Qiu. In the future, researchers hope to use this new method to 3D print lifelike models of more complicated organs, using multiple inks.
For instance, if the organ has a tumour or deformity, the surgeons would be able to see that in a patient-specific model and test various strategies for removing tumours or correcting complications. 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 said. “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,” he said.