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3D Printing

Have A Heart: New Software Could 3D Print Organ Replicas On Demand

Tomas Kellner
April 26, 2017
Erica Endicott was pregnant with her son, Kaden, when cardiologists at Phoenix Children’s Heart Center discovered that the left side of the boy’s heart was not growing properly. Kaden, who is healthy now, was treated by a team of doctors in Boston for the life-threatening condition. Following the procedure, they used data from an ultrasound system to create and print 3D models of Kaden’s heart before and after his surgery. “As a parent, it was incredible to get an actual, tangible model of our son’s heart,” Erica told GE Reports. “It helped us better understand the defect.”
Erica’s experience with 3D models of organs remains rare, but if Jimmie Beacham, chief engineer for advanced manufacturing at GE Healthcare, has his way, it won’t be for long. Beacham, 43, and his team at the company’s futuristic laboratory in Waukesha, Wisconsin, are looking for ways to quickly and efficiently translate image files from computed tomography (CT) scanners and other imaging machines so they can be printed. “Today, when people print organs, it can take anywhere from a week to three weeks to manipulate the data,” Beacham says. “We want to do it with a click of a button.”

 width= GE's Jimmie Beacham wants to print organs like liver (above) or heart (top) with the click of a button. Image credit: GE Reports/GE Healthcare

It’s not an easy task. A CT scanner like GE’s Revolution CT generates and transmits in 1 second an amount of data equivalent to 6,000 Netflix movies. “Right now, we convert all that data into an image on the screen,” Beacham says. “I’m pushing our teams across GE Healthcare to look at how we can create a software package that turns that image into a printable file that can be sent to a 3D printer. We’ve already printed several organs like the liver and the lung. It’s valuable learning.”

GE recently launched GE Additive, a business unit that’s developing machines for 3D-printing and other additive manufacturing methods. As a next step, Beacham’s team is collaborating with GE Additive to explore whether “a custom machine that prints organs from the files that we derive from our software” makes sense. Given the industry’s advancements, Beacham says, speed is of the essence. “If we don’t figure it out, someone else will,” he says.

Beacham believes that both doctors and patients will benefit from the technology. “All humans are built a little bit differently,” he says. “When a surgeon has to go in and do a procedure, they are sometimes surprised by what they find.”

Beacham says that anatomical replicas of organs would provide the surgeon with more information upfront. “Surgeons sometimes have to repeatedly go to a workstation, look at the image on the screen and try to figure out what’s going on,” he says. “It slows the surgery down and increases the odds of introducing infection or slowing the patient’s recovery time.”

 width= Beacham's team 3D-printed the aortic tree (above) by using data from a heart CT scan like the one below. Images credit: GE Healthcare/GE Reports.

 width= Beacham’s team is collaborating with GE Additive to explore whether “a custom machine that prints organs from the files that we derive from our software” makes sense. Image credit: GE Healthcare/GE Reports.

He says that radiologists also have been asking for 3D-printed models of organs because they improve the dialogue with patients. “You can show the patient the body part that has the problem,” he says. “When they hold it in their hands and see it clearly, rather than look at a grayscale 2D image on-screen, they can quickly grasp what needs to be fixed.”

He compares the experience to visiting a car repair shop. “If you are not a gearhead and don’t know a lot about cars and the mechanic comes out and tell you that you need a new transmission, you are not going to know if that’s true or not,” he says. “The first thing you think is ‘Do I trust him?’ You are going on blind faith.”

3D-printed anatomical replicas will help clarify things, Beacham says. “I think as people get more informed about health, they will want to be a bigger part of the solution,” he says. “Helping them see the problem clearly will build more trust between the doctor and the patient. It translates into quicker action.”

 width= A scaled-down version of 3D-printed lungs. Image credit: GE Healthcare/GE Reports.

 width= A 3D-printed foot. Image credit: GE Healthcare/GE Reports.