Manufacturing Spare Body Parts for Surgeons To Practice On Before Tricky Procedures
Imagine this: A soldier with a gunshot wound arrives in a battleground hospital and undergoes X-rays and CT scans to determine the full extent of the damage. The attending surgeon inputs the scans into a computer, which uses the data to create an ultra-realistic 3-D model of the injury site. The surgeon then hits “print” and within a few minutes is holding a near-perfect, full-size replica of the injured area—whether it’s a shoulder, a thigh, a head, or an internal organ.
The surgeon performs a practice surgery on the model, to determine the best strategy and technique for extracting the bullet and stabilizing the wound. Every element of the model—the bone, the muscle, the connective tissue, the skin, and even the bullet—is highly realistic. Perhaps more importantly, the model also feels realistic. To the surgeon’s hands, using a scalpel to cut the model’s skin or muscle feels nearly identical to the real thing. After one or two trial runs on printed models, with better knowledge for how the procedure will look and feel, the surgeon performs the operation on the human patient.
Sandipan Mishra and Johnson Samuel, both assistant professors in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, are using advanced manufacturing research techniques to turn this vision into reality.
There are several synthetic materials known to closely mimic skin, muscle, bone, and other biological materials. The challenge, however, is creating new methods for manufacturing a lifelike model or synthetic organ that incorporates all of these different materials, Samuel said.
“We’re not just talking about printing a synthetic bone, or fake skin, or a synthetic kidney. People already know how to do that. What we’re trying to do is bring all of that together into a new system which combines different manufacturing techniques to quickly print complex, lifelike, synthetic models of organs,” Samuel said.
“Emergency surgeries are often one-off opportunities—surgeons really only have one chance to get it right. With the rapid prototyping of synthetic organs, though, surgeons can reconstruct the exact problem they have, personalized to the patient, and practice it a few times before the actual operation.” —Sandipan Mishra
Every surgery is unique, because every patient is unique, Mishra said. Mass-produced models, therefore, would not be of much use to surgeons. Printing out synthetic organs based on CT or MRI scans of a specific patient, however, creates a highly personalized model.
“Emergency surgeries are often one-off opportunities—surgeons really only have one chance to get it right. With the rapid prototyping of synthetic organs, though, surgeons can reconstruct the exact problem they have, personalized to the patient, and practice it a few times before the actual operation,” Mishra said.
Mishra and Johnson spoke about this early-stage research project Nov. 2 at the Biomimicry and Additive Manufacturing Seminar, hosted by the Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) at Rensselaer and the Biomimicry Technical Assistance Team of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
The goal of the seminar was to bring together biologists and engineers and discuss how the biological world can inspire potential new solutions to established engineering problems, said CATS Director John Wen. Out-of-the-box thinking and dialogue, particularly when at the intersection of different academic disciplines, can lead to unexpected insights and new perspectives from which to tackle research problems, he said.
Additive manufacturing, including Samuel’s and Mishra’s project, is a new frontier in manufacturing. The idea involves putting materials together, in the desired shape with the required properties. This is an entirely different perspective than traditional manufacturing, which generally starts with a bulk material and removes or reduces it as needed. Additive manufacturing, which includes 3-D printing, promises to be less wasteful in terms of materials and more efficient in terms of energy consumption. Engineers have much to learn from biologists about the challenge and promise additive manufacturing, Wen said.
“In biological world, additive manufacturing is routinely used to build structures with fantastic properties and geometries from common raw materials and under benign processing conditions,” he said. “Together with NYSERDA, we are bringing together these two communities—biologists who study additive manufacturing in nature, and engineers who develop additive manufacturing machines—to explore areas of cross-fertilization.”