My first conference – 3D Printing in Medicine

As usual, I am just going to mention a quick update on my own work before I can talk about the fun stuff that I got up to in the month of June.

This week I have submitted the third draft of the radiopacity project paper to my supervisors (I have three supervisors and one enterprise partner mentor as part of my PhD supervisory team). It is only now that I feel that the paper is actually coming together nicely, in a coherent and easy-to-read style. Honestly, I was feeling quite unmotivated the past few weeks as I have been mainly desk-bound and trying to finish off this paper, when I would prefer to be in the lab. But, Wednesday evening I came across an interesting citation for a paper. It sounded like they were doing quite similar work to us in the radiopacity project, even with the same make of printer. This worried me, as our paper is not yet published and this paper was out since 2016 (and would take away from the novelty of our hard work). Upon reading the paper,to my relief, this other group were doing very primitive work in comparison to what we have in the pipeline, and our research was under real no threat!

To give a simple comparison, we are suspending particles that show up on x-ray within the 3D printing ink, printing components with this ink that then are visible under x-ray. This other group, were 3D printing as normal and then rubbing particles with similar properties on the outside of the printed parts. Same end goal, but their method was quite messy and ours would be much more suitable to medical devices.

Materialise Conference, Leuven

So, I was sent to my first conference last month, titled ‘3D printing in Medicine’, which was run by Materialise in Leuven, Belgium. Materialise were one of the first 3D printing companies, and began when the CEO Wilfried Vancraen realised the potential of 3D printing and bought his own printer. Now, Materialise are the largest 3D printing company, and are focused primarily on software, medical and manufacturing.

This was a two-day conference. Day One consisted of talks from the experts in 3D printing in medicine and a visit to Health House, as well as plenty of coffee/tea breaks, lunch, dinner and drinks – where all the real networking happens. Day Two was made up of a Mimics workshop (learning how to segment medical scans before they can be 3D printed) and a full tour of Materialise HQ).

The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Jonathan Morris, who is the Director of the 3D Printing Anatomy Modelling Lab, Mayo Clinic, USA. Jonathan spoke about how 3D printing has revolutionised radiology in their hospital – mainly in terms of 3D printed models for surgeons to be able to see the anatomy before operating on a patient. Once the surgeons use 3D printed models to plan a surgery, they want to continue using these models for future surgeries, as it gives them an opportunity to literally see regions of interest (complicated vascular structures, tumours within an organ), whereas they usually would not learn this much detail until the patient was already on the operating table. Even though medical scans are of good quality, it takes skill, practice and some mental gymnastics to visualise the 3D anatomy from what is on a 2D screen in front of you – and this is where a 3D printed model makes surgical planning much easier.

Cutting guides are also frequently used. This involves looking at a 3D virtual model of the area of interest (Femur, for example), deciding where on this model is best to make cuts, and creating a cutting guide based on this. The cutting guide is then 3D printed, sterilised and taken into surgery. The surgeon already knows exactly where to place the cutting tools before the operation begins. The guides are placed in the predetermined position and the cutting process is simplified – less time, fewer tools required and most importantly, better surgical outcomes.

The evening part of day one was very interesting. Health House, Leuven, is a unique experience, looking at the future of healthcare and how growing technology will impact this future. This is an interactive, hands-on tour, following the timeline of ‘pre-conception to old age’ and the disease and illnesses that a person might come into contact with during their lifetime. The focus of this tour is how the healthcare of the future might better prevent/monitor these in the future with growing technology.

The highlight of the two days for me, was the tour of Materialise HQ. Materialise seem to have a few printers of each 3D printing technology (Stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering, FDM, Polyjet, Multi-jet fusion, Direct Metal Laser Sintering), as well as a ‘mammoth’ SLA 3D printer which contains a huge VAT of photocurable resin (as in normal SLA) but the dimensions are big enough to print an entire car in a single print (which they have done!). We were brought on a loop around the factory, and most 3D printers had a window so we could look into the print beds and watch the printing take place. I have to compare it to being Charlie in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ on the Materialise factory tour – I must have been annoying the tour guide with all of my questions. There is an entire room full of everyday objects that had been 3D printed; coffee tables, chairs, lampshades. The lampshades were surprisingly impressive..

There is a virtual tour of Materialise HQ here.

I met some very interesting people at the networking breaks on both days. There was a huge variety of people there – from people starting out in their careers (like me) to people that have already successfully set up 3D printers in hospitals around the world and are now teaching the rest how to follow suit – and why it will literally revolutionise healthcare. There were people from a range of disciplines in attendance, including material science, radiology, plastic surgery, cardiology, orthopaedic surgery, gynaecology, software development, biomedical engineering, dentistry and medical physics. I think it is important for such diversity at these events as it keeps it very interesting and networking has the potential to lead to interdisciplinary connections in areas that you would never think of applying your own research.

The common conversation starter at the networking breaks was ‘and what do you do?’ – which I would imagine is quite common at these type of events. I ended up explaining my own research to plenty of people (and also taking in theirs). Most people seemed genuinely interested in the projects that I am working on, which is a good sign for when we are publishing this work! Overall I had a great time at my first conference, and would highly recommend Materialise-run conferences in the future.

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