USF Health radiology team helps advance clinical medicine with anatomically precise 3D prints

Using data specific to each patient, 3D models of bone and organs can be created to guide surgeons and educate patients.

 

Cardiologist Fadi Matar, MD, holds a model of a heart in his hand, studying the route he will take to insert wiring into his patient during surgery.

The model is not a generic, one-size-fits-all example of a heart using average measurements. This heart model is built using the exact measurements of that patient’s own heart.

This specific, anatomically correct heart model was created using 3D printing and a complicated algorithm that combines data from ultrasound, CT, and MRI scans for that patient. This heart – along with other organs and bone structures – is from the USF Health Department of Radiology, built by printers housed in one of USF Health’s flagship clinical facilities, the South Tampa Center for Advanced Healthcare.

Summer Decker, PhD, an imaging scientist, and Jonathan Ford, PhD, a biomedical engineer, are the two-member team creating the organ and bone models that are altering both medical care and standard approaches to surgical planning.

Dr. Summer Decker (left) and Dr. Jonathan Ford make a 3D model of a heart in USF Health’s Department of Radiology in USF Health South Tampa Center for Advanced Healthcare in downtown Tampa. Dr. Decker, the director of imaging research, and Dr. Ford, a biomedical engineer for imaging research, have been at the forefront of USF Health Radiology’s department trailblazing use of 3D modeling in clinical capacities.

“I have surgeons tell me they won’t even think about starting surgery without one of our 3D prints first,” said Dr. Decker, associate professor of radiology and director of the USF Health 3D Imaging Lab.

“We are taking multiple data sets to recreate an organ in print so surgeons can use it as a surgical guide. No surgeon is going to operate unless the model is anatomically accurate. I can hand a surgeon their case in advance of surgery and they could tell the patient ‘I’ve used your exact heart to practice’ before going into the actual surgery. This could greatly reduce errors, as well as surgery time.”

Incorporating 3D printing into clinical medicine is fairly new. USF Health’s use of a 3D printer so directly with patient care, especially surgery, and in such close partnership with its primary teaching hospital, is another story altogether, Dr. Decker said.

“There is nothing in our region like this,” she said. “The company that installed our Stratasys printer chose USF Health as a site because of our close partnership with and our proximity to Tampa General Hospital. Having a top-tier hospital and its surgery facilities right next door to our 3D Imaging Lab made all the difference. USF Health has the technology and 3D expertise, and TGH has the surgical cases. We are one in about two dozen in the world, and the first the Tampa Bay area, to do this.”

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USF Health is this region’s only academic medical center. With three primary missions – research, education, and patient care – Dr. Decker and Dr. Ford could be considered a ‘triple threat’ for incorporating medical 3D printing into all three areas.

In clinical care, their 3D prints are used by physicians at USF Health, and across the globe.

For research, the team has studied and published on this topic for well over a decade and laid the foundational research that confirmed all of the measurement translations taken from scans and incorporated into 3D printed output.

“We had to make the final model anatomically correct or this entire effort would be useless for improving direct patient care,” Dr. Decker said. “It would be just another hobby-level 3D print we’ve all seen.”

Dr. Summer Decker.

And for education, it might not be too far from the truth to say that any clinical institution or hospital building a 3D printing operation today has tapped into the expertise found in the USF Health 3D Imaging Lab.

Dr. Decker teaches resident physicians, and Dr. Ford trains other biomedical engineers. They both present at conferences and host training sessions, graciously and eagerly sharing the details that have made the USF Health 3D Imaging Lab a success.

“Medicine and the field of radiology is changing to include 3D printing, and I want students and residents in many specialties to know about this technology because it will be a part of their careers, I promise them,” Dr. Decker said.

“This is really revolutionary for education,” Dr. Ford said. “You can teach from actual case examples and allow students to interact with a complex pathology in a real tactile sense.”

Dr. Jonathan Ford.

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Every detail and nuance pertinent to this patient is in that model. Thicker tissue here and thinner there, variations in heart valve size, possible obstructions, etc. – all details that might not show up on the individual scans but, because data is combined, the 3D model now tells the surgeon more exactly what he will face when he is maneuvering around a real heart in his very real patient.

The anatomically correct model is how Dr. Matar knows exactly what he will do during surgery and, perhaps more importantly, what he needs to avoid – all before his patient is in the operating room, before he is under anesthesia.

“The advantages are many,” Dr. Matar said. “Surgeons can see, feel and even ‘practice’ the upcoming procedure before actual surgery. In addition to helping define a stronger surgical plan, it also reduces the time of the surgery, both of which equate to better patient outcomes. Patients can see and better understand their conditions and the treatments and surgeries being recommended, and sometimes why a procedure cannot be done.”

The technology also allows for taking on far more complicated cases, Dr. Matar said.

“We are using three-dimensional printing of cardiac structures for multiple reasons, the most important one is to understand the complex anatomies that present to us how we can tackle more advanced and more complex anatomies.”

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3D printing is not new – it’s the clinical application of it, building anatomical models, the exact replica of the patient’s organ or skull or spine that is at the forefront of medicine.

3D models of vertebrates after printing for three hours at USF Health’s 3D Imaging Lab.

 

A 3D print of pancreatic cancer helped a patient have a better understanding why surgery was not a viable option.

Dr. Decker and Dr. Ford have spent the better part of the last two decades learning and refining the printing, then teaching and training others how to incorporate 3D printing into pre-operative planning and patient education.

Dr. Decker and Dr. Ford are clearly making an impact.

This team has won awards, is invited to present nationally, has taught physicians across the world how to effectively implement 3D printing, and has garnered lots of attention from industry media.

“This has gone past ‘wow, this is cool but what can you do with it?’ to actually being clinically applicable and helping save lives,” Dr. Ford said.

Dr. Decker added, “That’s why people are flying to USF Health from all over the world to learn about this.”

Photos and video by Allison Long, story by Sarah Worth, USF Health Office of Communications.