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3D printed vertebrae helping Nottingham spinal surgeons practice ‘very delicate’ procedures

Oct 5, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University are 3D printing replica human vertebrae to help train spinal surgeons. The 3D printed vertebrae look, behave, and feel like the real thing, and could aid surgeons looking to perform procedures such as laminectomies.

Postgraduate student Joseph Meeks with his 3D printed spine model

It’s a known fact that surgeons carrying out tricky backbone procedures need to show a great deal of spine. That is, they need the courage and confidence to make bold decisions, and that courage and confidence only comes with practice.

3D printing is helping spinal surgeons across the world get that practice. But at Nottingham Trent University in England, complex additive manufacturing research means local surgeons now have some of the most advanced training aids at their disposal.

A project led by Nottingham Trent is aiming to give trainee surgeons the knowledge of how it feels to partly remove or drill into vertebrae, before they attempt the real thing on a human patient. Currently, these trainees can use virtual practice software or simple models to get acquainted with such procedures.

Unfortunately, these existing practice tools aren’t always enough to ensure that the new doctor is fully prepared for what lies ahead.

“Consultants undertaking delicate and precise procedures like spinal surgery need as much knowledge and experience as possible as part of their surgical training before going into live operations,” commented Professor Philip Breedon, of Nottingham Trent’s Design for Health and Wellbeing Group. “One error can lead to catastrophic, life-changing consequences for a patient, so it’s imperative that surgeons can prepare themselves thoroughly.”

This 3D printing research project will give trainee surgeons that extra bit of preparation, enhancing their own skill set while also reducing the chances of serious harm being caused to patients.

The 3D printed vertebrae were printed in a PLA mix

“This research will enable clinicians to experience how performing spinal surgery feels both physically and mentally, but in a safe training environment,” Breedon said.

The research is being helped in a big way by Professor Bronek Boszczyk, a consultant spinal surgeon at Nottingham University Hospitals Trust and visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University.

“This is an innovative project which has resulted in the development of spinal models which look, feel, and behave like real bone,” Boszczyk commented. “These models will enable surgeons to practice very delicate procedures in a training environment which will give clinicians increased confidence before they undertake real spinal operations.”

The 3D printed vertebrae models, most of which are printed in a mix of PLA and binding agent and coated in polyester, will help trainee surgeons practice procedures like laminectomies, which help relieve trapped nerves. Such procedures sometimes involve the removal of bone tissue.

A closer look at a 3D printed surgical model

The 3D printed medicals models can be made to represent specific patients too. Using CT scan data, the Nottingham Trent team is able to create 3D printed vertebrae that match those of individual patients for shape and size. This process is particularly useful for patients with conditions like scoliosis.

Not all the 3D printed parts are made from PLA, however. The softer inside pieces are made from polyurethane, while discs between vertebrae are made from silicone.

And soon, this variation in materials could evolve into something even more complex. The team hopes to 3D print replica bones that vary in strength to give trainees an idea of how osteoporosis-affected bones feel and react differently to normal bones. They could presumably simulate such conditions by adjusting the porosity of their 3D prints or using different materials.

27-year-old Joseph Meeks, a postgrad at Nottingham Trent, developed the futuristic 3D printing technology as part of his MSc in Medical Product Design.

“Until a surgeon goes into a live operation, he or she has very little knowledge of how it feels to perform spinal surgery,” Meeks said. “This research provides consultants with a realistic representation of spinal surgery which allows them to learn in a safe and calm environment. By better communicating these experiences, we can improve the skills of surgeons in the classroom and help enhance operative outcomes for patients in real life.”

Around this time last year, Nottingham Trent University was responsible for another exciting medical 3D printing project in the same vein. With the help of industry partners, researchers created a lifelike 3D printed human body with a “functioning” heart and lungs. The model was also created for surgeons to practice procedures on.

That model even allowed technicians to pump blood through the 3D printed organs, giving trainee surgeons an experience of what actual human blood loss is like.


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