As the technology advances, 3-D imaging and printing will take a greater role in health care.

As 3-D entertainment becomes more commonplace, moving from movie theaters to our home entertainment centers, the technology is also making inroads into our health care systems.

This new technology is proving to be a valuable asset for the medical facilities participating in 3-D imaging and printing. Though still in its infancy, medical professionals are already seeing impressive results from this burgeoning technology.

3-D printing

Readily available for purchase, 3-D printing is quickly becoming a fun and innovative hobby for many Americans. But the role these devices play in the medical field is only scratching the surface of the innovations and revelations the future of this technology holds.

In simple terms, the process requires a 3-D printer, a computer model based on the geometric program of what you want printed and the materials to build it. Michael Cusack, assistant director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Massachusetts General Hospital, says his department has been supporting physicians and researchers by creating tools they need but can’t buy anywhere else.

“If a doctor needs a widget to extract something or a bracket to hold a light or camera a certain way, we construct those kinds of things,” Cusack says. “We have started experimenting more on the health care side of things, printing anatomical pieces, bones and blood vessels. Not a working blood vessel, but an accurate, 3-D, tangible representation of one.”

As the computer programming and materials progress, more opportunities for applying 3-D printing will be available. At Massachusetts General, researchers are already creating 3-D models to assist doctors with presurgery exploration. Working from a CT scan of a patient with a facial tumor, Cusack says his team was able to build a life-size 3-D model of the patient’s skull and tumor.

“It was done as a way to create a guide for planning the surgery, so the doctors could see exactly what they’d be dealing with before operating on the patient,” Cusack says. “Because of the geometry involved in creating the tumor model, we were able to bisect the part of the skull without the tumor and show what the full skull would look like once the tumor was removed.”

As the technology advances, 3-D models could become part of the medical process. Patients will receive an X-ray, CT scan or MRI and then a 3-D model of the affected area. Cusack says as the requests become more complicated, the computer models from the CT scans require more advanced programming before they can be converted to solid models. But where the technology is now, it’s not as simple as having a patient step into an MRI and printing a perfect 3-D model in three minutes.

It becomes possible to create custom operating instruments as new printing materials are created with properties that lend themselves to different applications, like materials that can be sterilized. And as the science progresses and the printing materials advance even further, it will also be possible to create functioning organs, vessels, tissue graphs or molds for plastic surgery.

“As good as it is, the technology is just in its infancy. But you could definitely speculate about all those things happening down the road,” Cusack says.

3-D imaging

At facilities like the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, advancement in 3-D imaging is leading innovations and improvements in breast cancer detection.

The technology, called digital tomosynthesis, has increased cancer detection during mammography screenings by as much as 15 percent. Michael Cohen, M.D., director of Breast Imaging for Emory Healthcare, says the technology is also resulting in fewer call backs for more scans to address an abnormality that couldn’t clearly be diagnosed on the first screening.

“We’re detecting more cancers and calling back fewer patients, so from a woman’s perspective, (digital tomosynthesis) is a positive experience,” Cohen says. “To be able to avoid the problems and stress related to doing a callback exam, that’s significant. The reduction in callbacks has been as high as 40 percent.”

Developed by Hologic, a global health care and diagnostics company, the 3-D mammogram tomosynthesis equipment sweeps across the patient’s breast in an arc, taking multiple low-dose images of the tissue. A high-powered computer then converts the images into very thin layers creating a 3-D view. The 3-D exam only takes a few seconds longer than the traditional 2-D mammogram and does not require any additional compressions of the breast.

One thing that’s been holding back the technology from advancing fast across the country is the added cost. The addition of a new billing code that can be submitted to Medicare for reimbursement has the potential to open the door for broader use.

“The cancer institute didn’t apply the added charge of the machine to the patients,” Cohen says. (The technology has been in use at the Winship Cancer Institute since March of last year.) “The clinic just absorbed the cost. We wanted it. We thought it was better for patients and we weren’t that interested in the profit margin. We just wanted to give the best technology to our patients.”