Printing 3-D Skeletons

Plastic bones and organs based on CT scans could educate students or prepare surgeons to perform complicated operations.

Apr 2, 2013
Kate Yandell

The scientists tried out several 3-D printers, including the Makerbot ReplicatorFlickr, Creative ToolsSurgeons and students could use 3-D printing to explore anatomy without cutting into flesh. Researchers published a video in the Journal of Visualized Experiments last month (March 22) explaining how to feed data on bone structure and soft tissue shape from CT scans into a 3-D printer, creating realistic plastic replicas.

Notre Dame engineering student Evan Doney, an undergraduate working in the lab of biological imaging expert Matthew Leevy, came up with the idea to give 3-D printers instructions based on CT scan data. The researchers tested the concept by printing out the skeleton and lungs of an anesthetized rat, as well as the preserved skull of a rabbit, using several different materials and machines.

Leevy originally saw Doney’s project as a neat trick. “At first I didn’t really know what the killer app would be, I just knew it would be really cool,” he told Wired Science. But he eventually realized that the method could be useful. Surgeons preparing for tough surgeries could print out their patients’ internal structures, and even keep them for reference in the operating room. And, since 3-D printing is cheap compared to making accurate casts of bones, anatomy students could have their own models to study, rather than having to share.  “At Notre Dame, there are 100 kids in anatomy class and they have to share five skulls,” he said. “For 10 to 20 bucks, they could each have their own skull to take back to their dorm to study.”