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Diagnostic Role of 3D Printing Technology in Pregnancy

pregnant womanThe first three-dimensional or 3D printers were engineered in the 1980s. Over the past two decades, the system has become much more sophisticated, allowing large and intricate items to be printed in various materials including plastic, ceramics, wax and metal. By many accounts, this advanced technology has helped revolutionize medical treatments, from printing highly detailed prosthetic limbs to spinal braces and metal replicas of facial structures used in reconstructive surgery.

One of the newest applications, according to Michigan doctors who found prenatal ultrasounds and MRI scans inconclusive, is using 3D printing to help accurately diagnose fetal deformities in utero. Their findings were reported in the October online edition of the journal Pediatrics.

3D printing aids doctors faced with high-risk pregnancy

In their particular case, the doctors were treating a young, healthy mother who was 30 weeks into her pregnancy. When a routine ultrasound showed a mass on the baby’s face, the physicians became concerned about facial abnormalities and how they might affect the fetal airways at the time of labor and delivery. In the worst case scenario, if the airway was obstructed, the child would need immediate intubation at birth.

After a completing a second, more thorough MRI, the doctors were able to use this data to create a perfect model of the baby’s face using a 3D printer.  The model helped the team extrapolate that the child would not suffer from total airway obstruction, but did have a cleft lip and palate birth defect.

A three-dimensional model, according to pediatric plastic surgeon Dr. Alfred Woo, helps doctors better evaluate specific facets of human physiology including size and scale that is difficult to assess on a screen. This marks this first time 3D printing has been utilized in utero “to diagnose facial deformity and severity of airway risk with a newborn,” said Woo, who works at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and was not a part of the study.

Woo sees the overwhelming potential of 3D printing technology in the realm of medicine and daily life in general. The system will enable doctors to be fully prepared and thus more successfully handle congenital deformities or anomalies at the time of birth, hopefully preventing additional risk of newborn trauma.

Widespread implications of medical 3D technology

And while 3D printing services are relatively cheap for common household or recreational items, the software for creating human models costs between $10,000 and $20,000 a year.  Dr. Oren Tepper, director of craniofacial surgery at Montefiore Health System explains that quality medical grade 3D printers come with a hefty price tag – hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tepper treats several children a year who suffer from facial malformations using this new technology. He praises the benefits of virtual modeling for complex surgeries, in that it allows surgeons to create anatomically correct stencils that often bypass the need for risky bone graft operations.

What was once a fantasy-like concept of fabricating human organs using technology is now a most certain reality. Researchers at Wake Forest Institute for Generative Medicine have already created a quasi-human bladder with 3D printing technology that was successfully implanted in human patients with poor bladder function.