How 3D printed body parts will change modern medicine

When Colleen Murray was 15 she was involved in a car crash that led to the loss of her left ear. While still able to hear, she had none of the exterior features of a normal ear. Unable to bear the abnormality, Colleen, who’s now in her 70s, developed techniques to hide the lack of symmetry. Always walking on the right side of people and a tactical haircut meant that for years many people close to her were not aware of her missing ear.  ‘All my life I’ve had to hide half my face,’ Colleen told Channel 7 News.

That was until June this year when teams from Deakin University and The Royal Melbourne Hospital worked together to replace her left ear with a 3D printed silicon model. Through a mixture of art, science and innovation, the team worked over several months to develop a replica based on CAT scans of Colleen’s existing ear. Dr Mazher Mohammed, a research fellow at Deakin who was part of the team, says the results speak for themselves: ‘This technique has achieved a like-for-like, near 100% reproduction of the patient’s own anatomy. You just can’t ask for better than that’.

'This technique has achieved a like-for-like, near 100% reproduction of the patient’s own anatomy. You just can’t ask for better than that.'

Dr Mazher Mohammed,
School of Engineering, Deakin University

Life-changing new technology

‘It’s the little things, like wanting to wear sunnies at the beach,’ Dr Mohammed explains and says the ear is purely cosmetic, but no less important to her wellbeing. ‘Society puts expectations on our aesthetic appearance and this in large part determines not only our confidence, but how we interact with others and our quality of life,’ he adds.

Using prosthetic limbs to restore a person’s holistic sense of self is a growing field combining artistic ability and technology. In Colleen’s case, a team worked for four weeks with seven different colour palettes to achieve a strikingly lifelike appearance. They then attached the ear to tiny titanium rods implanted in her skull. She had only one request for her new ear: that it was pierced, so she could wear a full set of earrings again for the first time in 55 years.

Despite the complexities involved, the turnaround on Colleen new ear was fast. Dr Mohammed said his team worked closely with The Royal Melbourne Hospital for six to eight months. But the actual printing of the ear took one day. The speed of creation, combined with 3D printing’s amazing ability to capture fine detail, means this technology can build life-like structures far more accurately than humans can.

‘It changes the way you look in the mirror,’ Dr Mohammed says. ‘You come to appreciate the complexity and the colour of the things we take for granted.’

What does the future hold?

Dr Mohammed’s current project is a testament to the extraordinary potential of this technology, and its applications are becoming more and more complex. He highlights a man from India who has just had his bottom jaw replaced. Following CT scans to provide an accurate model, the jaw was attached with magnetic bolts in the man’s head. He is now eating and smiling with his new jaw in a way that was previously impossible.

Taking Dr Mohammed’s work a step further, scientists have begun 3D printing body parts using actual biological tissue from patients, rather than prosthetic materials. Researchers at Deakin say it will soon be possible to 3D print complex human body parts such as blood vessels and kidneys. Experts are currently experimenting with printing bone and cardiac tissues that are tailored to and implanted in patients.

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Dr Mazher Mohammed
Dr Mazher Mohammed

Research Fellow (Advanced Design – Engineering), School of Engineering, Deakin University
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