Maki Sugimoto believes that 3-D printers can take medicine — and mankind — to the next level.

Dr. Sugimoto, a surgeon and associate professor of gastroenterology at the Kobe University School of Medicine, is a pioneer in the field of research and development, as well as clinical applications, of 3-D body-imaging and surgery-navigation systems. During a seminar at the annual meeting of the Japan Society for Endoscopic Surgery in December, Sugimoto showed how 3-D printers have made it possible for doctors to make personalized human organ models from two-dimensional CT and MRI images of patients.

“We can create life-size copies of the organs of patients, such as of the liver, gallbladder and the pancreas by outputting their CT-scan images through a 3-D printer,” he said. “And we can have two different kinds of (thermosoftening) plastics injected in layers, with each layer measuring 0.016 millimeters in thickness. With a combination of the two materials, we can shape and color the models in different ways, such as making them in semi-transparent colors or changing their firmness and textures.”

The key to Sugimoto’s efforts has been the evolution of a 3-D body-imaging software called OsiriX, an open-source Mac-based program originally developed by a team of Swiss and American radiologists, which can run smoothly on notebook PCs or even iPads. Using the software, Sugimoto, in collaboration with Chiba-based medical engineering firm Fasotec Co., has developed organ models that not only have the look, but also the weight and the texture of real organs, with the option to highlight blood vessels, bile ducts and/or even tumors inside.

These organ models — whose manufacturing costs range from ¥50,000 to ¥150,000 — can be used by doctors to practice surgery, using their actual tools, thus helping them, as well as nurses and other co-meds, better prepare for operations beforehand, he said. Patients can also better understand their illnesses and treatment options if they can see and touch models that look exactly like their own organs, he added.

In addition, Sugimoto is working with a craftsman at an artificial-blood-vessel-making factory to develop “hybrid” models, which are partly made using a 3-D printer and partly by handiwork, he said. Such models can be soaked in water to look and feel even closer to real organs. He showed off one of the liver models at the seminar, which looked and felt exactly like a reddish-brown beef liver you might buy at a supermarket. “We are in an age when we need to make (medicine) not only visible, but touchable,” he said. “And to combine the benefits of both the virtual and real worlds.” (T.O.)

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