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3D Printed Organs Look, Feel and Bleed Like the Real Thing

The realistic-feeling organs help medical students and for doctors practice difficult surgeries ahead of time.
Injected hydrogel into a 3D printed mold produced this artificial kidney. Image: University of Rochester Medical Center

When it comes to 3D printing organs for practicing difficult surgeries, texture can be as important as structure.

Researchers across the globe have been using 3D printers to make custom models of brains, spines and hearts to practice difficult surgeries. But some have taken that research to the next level by designing printed organs that feel, move and bleed like the real thing.

The slimy, squishy materials not only help doctors get a more realistic understanding of complex cases, they can help medical students develop muscle memory faster.


The University of Rochester's Simulated Inanimate Model for a Physical Learning Experience (SIMPLE) project uses hydrogel to create 3D-printed organs that bleed when cut.

"Very few surgical simulations are successful at recreating the live event from the beginning to the end," said Dr. Ahmed Ghazi, an assistant professor in the Department of Urology, in a statement. "What we have created is a model that looks, feels, and reacts like a live organ and allows trainees and surgeons to replicate the same experience they would face in the operating room with a real patient."

In some of these cases, surgeons are trying out new methods or simply honing their skills on a routine surgery. But in others, patients' organs, skeleton or nerves are formed in an unusual way, and a surgeon wants to try several methods to see which would be the most successful and cause the least blood loss.

"Surgeons are just like pilots," Ghazi said. "There will always be the first time a pilot takes a 747 up into the air and there will always be a first time a surgeon does a procedure from beginning to end on their own. While pilots have simulators that allow them to spend hours of training in a realistic environment, there really is no lifelike equivalent for surgeons."

In Japan, a 3D-printed heart built by the National Center for Cardiovascular Disease in the city of Suita near Osaka was built to help doctors practice difficult cardiac surgeries, Japanese media outlet Shimpo Hebei Shimbun reported Wednesday.


The heart model is customized to each patient through their CT and MRI scans, and surgeons are able to use the model to practice complicated surgeries ahead of time. Unlike most other models, the center's 3D-printed heart feels like a real organ, which helps surgeons get a lifelike experience when testing a procedure.

Printing organs for practice is gaining popularity among hospitals around the globe. Hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic use 3D printing for practice on complex and rare surgical cases. And some researchers at various hospitals are working toward the day when 3D-printed functional organs could be used for transplants.

The National Institutes of Health even offers a variety of heart models for organizations to 3D-print for practice or to show students.

"Surgery is often like a Pandora's Box," said Ghazi in a statement. "You don't know what is inside until you open it up."

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