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How 3D printed body parts will change modern medicine

Imagine having to hide half your face because of an embarrassing abnormality. Even worse, what if your left ear was entirely missing?

Sure, you’d quickly develop techniques to hide the lack of symmetry. Always walking on the right side of people, maintaining a tactical haircut, maybe even tilting your head a certain way in photographs. But you’d struggle to get away with doing little things most of us take for granted, like wearing sunnies at the beach.

That was the situation for Colleen Murray, who lost her ear in a car crash when she was just 15. ‘All my life I’ve had to hide half my face,’ Colleen, who’s now in her 70s, told Channel 7 News. That is, up until June 2016, when teams from Deakin University and The Royal Melbourne Hospital worked together to replace Colleen’s 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

How 3D printing technology is changing lives

The ear is purely cosmetic, but no less important to Colleen’s wellbeing, Dr Mohammed explains. ‘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.’

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’s 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.

Interested in working at the cutting edge of new technology that’s changing lives? Check out Deakin’s range of engineering and design courses.

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Dr Mazher Mohammed
Dr Mazher Mohammed

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