A 3D-printed organ doesn't have to actually be implanted to save a life—in fact, it doesn't have to be functional at all to make a difference.
That was the case this July, when a model of the deformed heart of a 2-week-old newborn was 3D-printed so that surgeons could practice cutting into it before actually performing the delicate surgery.
"The heart of a newborn takes up such a small area, there is literally very little room for mistakes," Koen Engelborghs, of Belgium's Materialise, who printed the heart, told me in a phone interview.
The flexibility mimics tissue
The heart, which was made out of a flexible cellulite material that can be cut into and otherwise manipulated, was used by doctors at New York City's Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital for a surgical test run.
"The flexibility mimics tissue," Engelborghs said. "It helps them make a game plan—with just an MRI, they were doubting between three and four strategies. Having the model in their hands let them do some cuts and tries and measurements so they could decide on one procedure."
The infant's heart was mixing oxygenated and deoxygenated blood thanks to misplaced valves, they learned. The surgery went off without a hitch, and the baby is expected to live without any further complications.
3D printing is expected to one day be a primary source of transplantable organs, and perhaps scientists will even engineer ones that are superior to our own. But, for the most part, that's still a far-future proposition for everything but the simplest blood vessels and skin grafts.
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