3D printing is already capable of fabricating a beak for an injured bald eagle and three-quarters of a prosthetic human skull. Now, scientists at the University of Notre Dame have successfully recreated an entire skeleton from a live animal. By taking a CT scan of an anesthetized rat, they were able to send the data to a 3D printer and create an exact replica of the individual’s anatomy. Far cheaper to purchase than a real skeleton and highly accurate in its detail, the technology has applications in veterinary and human medicine.
The idea to print an entire skeletal system came from Evan Doney, an engineer working in Matthew Leevy’s biological imaging lab at Notre Dame. After having a conversation with an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, he began to see the possibilities of 3D-printing technology for the medical sciences. Using several freeware programs to convert the CT scan’s information for use in a printer, Doney and his colleagues recreated a live rat’s skeleton in plastic or acrylic complete with a removable set of lungs, as well as a rabbit skull. The programs allowed them to remove materials, repair breakages, and clean up the image before printing. The team was able to take advantage of a Makerbot, Shapeways printer, and ProJet HD 3000 to assemble the bodies. The models have the capacity either be printed to scale or increased in size.
As the techniques advance, similar methods could be used to copy specific patients’ anatomies, preparing surgeons for tricky operations. The models are also much cheaper than human teaching materials which could cost thousands of dollars. Soon, surgery could be tailor-made for each individual, allowing for practice and reduction in error.