Recent news attributing the potential for successful surgery on infant and baby hearts to 3D printing technology has created a buzz throughout the medical industry for 3D capabilities. This technology may provide doctors with a better vantage point when analyzing a baby’s heart, allowing them to identify small holes, restricted blood flow, and other under-developed or flawed functions.
The potential for 3D printing in this capacity enhances methods commonly used by physicians, clinicians, and radiologists during the review of data provided by 3D medical imaging systems, e.g., magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). While effective in observing many anomalies even without the benefits of 3D printing, MRIs can present challenges when reviewing imaging results on a 2D display, especially when the objects being observed are very small and contain even smaller defects, such as within a baby’s heart. Using the same series of MRI scans, 3D printing creates a physical model that you can hold in your hand, which some research indicates is easier to interpret and study when developing complex, and often life threatening surgical procedures.
Figure 1. 3D printing of an infant’s heart. (Wonderful Engineering, Feb, 2014)
3D printing as a visualization tool, while certainly a step in the right direction, can present its own set of challenges especially when used in a larger clinical setting, such as:
- It can become quite time intensive to build an object for review, especially in an industry when time is often of the essence
- Many times, the inside of the object produced cannot be easily reviewed, requiring the building of additional parts
- 3D printing capabilities require space within a medical facility for a tool large enough to build the range of objects desired
- Storage is required for the materials used for printing, and in many cases, storage of the objects printed may be required for later use, especially when developed for critical surgical procedures
Overall, 3D printing should be considered to be an interim solution, used until glasses-free 3D volumetric displays are fully developed. At that point, 3D printing will have diminished value as a visualization aid.
Figure 2. Glasses-free 3D volumetric display of an infant’s heart.
Once fully developed, glasses-free 3D volumetric displays will provide the next iteration of 3D capabilities developed for medical use. These displays have the potential to create a comprehensive 360° view of the heart in an image chamber, allowing medical professionals to simulate surgical procedures before they are used. This would enable them the ability to observe changes in the heart and surrounding area during these simulated procedures, identify additional abnormalities or challenges, and with further advances in imaging, observe these procedures and their impact in real-time.
In coming years, glasses-free 3D volumetric displays will support and further medical advancements, providing doctors with the highest level of technology and knowledge before operating on anything, especially a baby’s heart.