The Smart Magazine About Medical Technology Innovations

#32 - MEDICA & RSNA Special Issue

3D Printing Pioneer

Five-year-old Mia Gonzalez holds a 3D printed replica of her heart (Courtesy of Stratasys)

Dr. Jonathan Morris, a diagnostic and interventional neuroradiologist, is co-director of the 3D printing laboratory at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, and chairman of the 3D Printing Special Interest Group of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). We caught up with him to discuss the rise of 3D printing in healthcare, and how the technology will impact the role of radiologists.


MedicalExpo e-magazine: How can 3D printing benefit medical care? Is this a game changing technology?

Dr. Jonathan Morris: This is most certainly a game-changing technology when it comes to complex surgical procedures, because 3D printed models bring human anatomy to life. We can use MRI and CT scans to obtain cross-sectional images of the inside of the body. But before 3D printing, it was still very hard for surgeons to really conceptualize what was going on inside the patient. They would actually learn things while doing the operation.

3D printing and medical imaging (Courtesy of embodi3D)

With 3D printing, a lot of the mental gymnastics that typically surround complex surgeries are simplified. The surgical team can use the model to plan the optimum way to operate. They can practice the procedure. They can choose which tools and devices to use. They can select less invasive procedures. Even experienced surgeons become far more confident about what they are going to do. All of this adds up to a better patient outcome.

ME e-mag: How does 3D printing benefit the patient?

Dr. Morris: Any technology that allows the surgeon to work more efficiently and effectively is good for the patient. Three-dimensional printing saves lives and can reduce the amount of time a patient needs to spend in surgery and in the hospital.

Nobody understands the full range of human anatomy better than a radiologist.

A 3D printed model also gives patients a far greater understanding of what their medical problem is and how it’s going to be fixed. A patient with a brain tumor looking at a CT scan can have real difficulty conceptualizing where that tumor is and what it looks like. The 3D printed model makes it possible to grasp the situation very quickly. I think it instills a sense of trust and confidence in the surgeon and the procedure that is being proposed.

ME e-mag: Should 3D printers be hospital-based and in the radiology department?

Dr. Morris: Yes. The use of 3D printing, which is an extension of medical imaging, is rapidly expanding into everything from oncology to cardiology. Nobody understands the full range of human anatomy better than a radiologist. To maximize efficiency and innovative discussion, 3D printers need to be where the doctors are, not in a building down the street.

3D printed model used for a face transplant (Courtesy of Mayo Clinic)

ME e-mag: What are the main barriers to scaling up the implementation of 3D printing technology in healthcare?

Dr. Morris: Firstly, economics. These printers can cost a hospital upwards of $500,000. A viable reimbursement strategy is essential to [the spread of] 3D printing. We need to work out who pays for the services, and how. To me, 3D printing is an essential tool, like a scalpel. We just need to prove the value of that tool. When 3D printed models start to be reimbursed, there will be exponential growth.

Secondly, there is a lack of technical expertise. We need to spread the word and educate the medical community. This is why we created the 3D Printing Special Interest Group at the RSNA in 2016.

3D printing is an essential tool, like a scalpel. We just need to prove the value of that tool.

ME e-mag: What about improving hardware and software?

Dr. Morris: There is also a bottleneck in this area. We aren’t talking about push button technology yet. Imaging software needs to be optimized for 3D printing, not diagnosis. Printers are too slow. Most companies developing 3D printing technology are interested in the automotive and aerospace industries because that’s where the money is right now.

ME e-mag: How far are we from implantable, patient-specific printed tissue and bioprinting?

Dr. Morris: Scientists are already bioprinting skin. In the next few years, I think we’ll see implantable 3D printed bone and cartilage. Whole organs are still a way off, but implantable 3D printed parts of organs are a lot closer to being a reality. Drug companies are already using such parts for testing.

About the Author

Daniel Allen is a writer and a photographer. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including CNN, BBC, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, National Geographic Traveller, Discovery Channel.

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