As 3-D printers evolve in granularity and the materials they use, HSS has started experimenting with replacement joints for fingers, thumbs, and elbows—something that had been out of reach thus far because of the size and complexity of the joints. "We now can make the metal porous where we need it to be porous, enabling implants to affix better to the bone, change shape, and be smaller," he says.
Lipman says 3-D-printed models also will help surgeons to communicate better with patients. They can use the model to spark a conversation about expectations and to explain "tricky anatomy." The visual aid, he says, will help patients become more educated about their rehabilitation and lead to improved outcomes.
At Henry Ford Hospital's Center for Structural Heart Disease, 3-D printing is being squarely focused on the problem of repairing hearts of all shapes and sizes.
Center director William O'Neill, MD, FACC, says the center is printing customized models of each patient's heart to properly size new bioprosthetic valves, as well as devices used to seal off left atrial appendage occlusions. Typically, the devices come in a circular shape. But O'Neill says 3-D imaging reveals many of the heart openings they're designed to fit in are actually oval or other odd shapes. Incorrectly sizing the devices can lead to leaks, which, once detected, have to be sealed in another surgery.
By printing a model of the heart that matches the patient's anatomy and allows doctors to plan procedures in advance, follow-up surgeries can be avoided.
The project is currently in the pilot incubator stage, but O'Neill says he is confident it will become an important application for cardiac departments. "Sizing valves and deciding how to place them with 3-D images and models could be a mainstay," he says.