Neil Mardis’ journey to becoming a pioneer in using 3-D printers to improve medicine began with a guess.
The Children’s Mercy Hospital radiologist was sitting in a meeting with some orthopedic surgeons two years ago, preparing for a complex procedure on a child’s hip joint. One of the surgeons said he wished they had a three-dimensional model of the child’s actual hip to look at, rather than just two-dimensional scans.
“Well, we have the data and 3-D printers exist, so we can probably do it,” Mardis said at the time.
Mardis had never actually seen a 3-D printer before. But when his bosses found out they could get a basic model for just a few thousand dollars they said, sure, give it a try.
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Two years later Mardis oversees a lab with two 3-D printers running almost constantly and requests for 3-D models coming from a new surgeon almost every week.
Children’s Mercy has approved the $300,000 purchase of a third, deluxe printer to crank out more models faster and Mardis is booking speaking gigs to tout the printers’ potential — including one at a convention in Las Vegas recently that brought together hundreds of radiologists from all over the country.
“People loved it,” Mardis said. “Nobody in the audience was doing 3-D printing, so it kind of blew their minds.”
Mardis, who gave a presentation Thursday at the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute’s second annual Midwest Bioinformatics Conference, said he thinks within five years 3-D printing will be a routine tool in medicine.
Others in Kansas City are already on board.
Neurologists at the University of Kansas Health System and St. Luke’s Hospital use 3-D models to map out brain surgeries and aneurysms and the St. Luke’s cardiology group is also exploring how they might be used to plan for heart repair.
Surgeries are increasingly done with minimal incisions and 3-D copies of body parts can help surgeons visualize what they’re doing in there. That makes surgery quicker, which means less time under anesthetic and other intense support, which generally means better outcomes for patients and lower costs for hospitals.
“We spend less time in the operating room and that’s much safer for patients, especially younger ones,” said orthopedic surgeon Richard Schwend. “There’s less risk for bleeding and less risk for infection.”
The printers have been around since the 1980s, but early models were clunky and expensive. The first one under $10,000 wasn’t developed until 2007 and the first commercially available one didn’t hit the market until 2009.
Even now, most are not designed for medicine, but for art projects or manufacturing prototypes.
“You kind of have to take existing tools and force them to do medical stuff,” Mardis said.
As long as he has detailed MRI or CT scans to work with, Mardis can usually do it.
But 3-D printers are still printers, and he’s got a small cardboard box full of aborted projects from when the printers jammed or the models fell over mid-print.
Mardis estimates he has about a 90 percent success rate for each print job, which take hours or even days depending on their complexity.
Requests for presurgical models started with the orthopedics department. Then Mardis started getting them from the ear-nose-and-throat and cranio-facial surgeons and plastic models of skulls with holes or malformations took their place on a shelf in his office next to plastic pelvises and knee joints.
New uses for the printers popped up at odd times, like while Mardis and his technician were manning a 3-D printing table at the hospital’s innovation fair.
Someone from the rehabilitation unit walked by and asked if he could print an ankle-foot orthotic brace. So now he does that too, making same-day stopgap braces so that kids can get up and walking while they wait for their more sturdy, permanent braces to be manufactured.
“This wasn’t work we went looking for, they just kind of found us,” Mardis said. “So, that kind of stuff has started to increase now that people have kind of heard that we’re doing this.”
When they get the new printer, Mardis said they will be able to print organs like hearts and livers, or other soft tissue body parts.
Mardis said it’s been rewarding to hear from surgeons who benefited from the 3-D models in the operating room, but it’s even more touching to hear about the models being used to show parents what is happening to their child and how the doctors plan to fix it.
He’s also had a number of patients ask to keep their models after surgery, as a memento.