The use of 3-D printing technology is quickly gaining a foothold in health care. A growing number of health systems are using the 3-D printing technologies that enable surgeons to practice on an exact replica of a body part before the patient is wheeled into an operating room.

The Washington University School of Medicine about a year ago began using 3-D printing in plastic and reconstructive surgery. The three-dimensional model of a CT scan produced by the technology helps surgeons to deal with such complex anatomies as the face or hand, says Albert Woo, M.D., chief of pediatric plastic surgery at St. Louis Children's Hospital and associate professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University School of Medicine. “I can hold it in my hand and use it to design my operation and better understand what's really going on in the different structures of the face, hand or any part of the body," Woo says of the 3-D printed models.

Similarly, the Boston Children's Hospital Heart Center creates heart models with 3-D printing for study before surgery. Sitaram Emani, M.D., a cardiac surgeon who directs the Complex Biventricular Repair Program at the heart center, says use of the models reduces the amount of time a child spends on cardiopulmonary bypass and anesthesia and could lead to improved outcomes.

A partnership between Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, Baton Rouge, La., and Louisiana State University adopted an innovative method for treating cancer that uses 3-D printing to create a virtual model, or phantom, of a patient's body that can be used to target the specific location of cancer cells. "The motivation for this project arose from a research study that seeks to eliminate necrosis, a rare but potentially serious side effect in children who receive radiotherapy," says Wayne Newhauser, director of the LSU Medical Physics and Health Physics program.

Costs can vary widely for the technology. Woo estimates that a professional-grade 3-D printer would run between $60,000 and $300,000, and the materials for model body parts cost less than $1,000, Woo says.

Woo says "the sky is the limit" for the technology, which in the future could advance to the point where functioning human organs could be created through biological 3-D printing. "3-D printing in the medical environment is in its infancy. We're just starting to learn some of the capabilities."

What is 3-D printing?

3-D printing is based on a technology known as additive manufacturing, in which objects are built layer by layer according to precise design specifications. First used in the 1980s, the process starts with a 3-D blueprint created with computer-aided design software. Working off the blueprint, the 3-D printer builds the desired object out of raw materials such as plastics.