3D printing and surgical practices

3D printing has had a significant impact on pre-surgical planning and patient outcomes


Surgeons have advanced their pre-surgical planning procedures by experimenting with 3D printing to understand individual patient needs for surgery. 3D-printed medical models sourced from patient 2D CT or MRI image data have provided surgeons with detailed, tangible objects made from a variety of materials to more accurately comprehend complex anatomy, plan the best strategy, and avoid costly mistakes. This has in turn improved patient outcomes due to fewer operative risks and reduced surgery time.

3D printing technology has been particularly advantageous to certain kinds of surgeries, particularly heart, spinal, and brain surgery. Neurosurgeons have immensely benefited from exact replicas that facilitate the visualization of the intricate relationships between brain pathology, nerves, vessels, tissue, and skull prior to and during surgery. A surgical team from Boston Children’s Hospital was able to successfully remove blood vessel malformations from the brains of four children using life-sized and enlarged 3D-printed models. Compared to matched control surgeries, those which were aided by models helped reduce surgical time by 12 percent, which is critical for children who are sensitive to anaesthesia.

Organ transplantation surgery has also experienced success with 3D-printed models. A Japanese group has used 3D-printed models to visualize a patient’s specific anatomy prior to kidney transplantation and to define the best way to remove the kidney in order to minimize tissue loss from the donor.

Further, 3D-printed models are invaluable as comprehensive teaching tools for surgeons. Remnant models can be kept to learn from procedures and allow trainees to practice surgical run-throughs on accurate 3D replicas which are safe and preferable to cadavers. As such, 3D-printed surgical models are custom tools that will likely be part of standard pre-operative preparations for many complex surgical procedures in the future.


Gross BC, Erkal JL, Lockwood SY, Chen C, Spence DM. Evaluation of 3D printing and its potential impact on biotechnology and the chemical sciences. Analytical Chemistry, Volume 86, Issue 7, Pages 3240-3253, 2014.

Klein GT, Lu Y, Wang MY. 3D printing and neurosurgery—ready for prime time? World Neurosurgery. Volume 80, Issues 3–4, Pages 233–235, 2013.

Weinstock P, Prabhu SP, Flynn K, Orbach DB, Smith E. Optimizing cerebrovascular surgical and endovascular procedures in children via personalized 3D printing. Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics. ePub July 31, Pages 1-6.






Written by Fiona Wong, PhD


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