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3D Technology Helping Patients & Doctors

3D model of a cancerous kidney

Instead of looking at a grey-scaled CT or CAT scan, certain patients at Erlanger hospital can now hold a to-scale model of their infected organ(s). This is thanks to a pilot partnership between a Chattanooga-based 3d printing company and Erlanger.

It's difficult to picture what human organs look like, especially diseased organs. Dr. Christopher Keel is a urologist at Erlanger and explained 3D printing is helping change that.

"The biggest thing I have found is that it helps you convey to the patient the seriousness of their disease process," said Dr. Christopher Keel.

Instead of just looking at a 2D image, patients can actually hold a 3D model in their hands. For example, a cancer can hold a perfectly-to-scale model of his kidney, covered in tumors.

"This big tumor that you see right here you are actually looking at the kidney as its sitting in the body like this," said Dr. Keel.

"To say that you have a golfball sized tumor, it puts it into perspective for them. Instead of a CAT scan which they can't read well, patients will hold it in their hands and figure out exactly what the doctor is talking about," said Dr. Keel.

Keith Campbell is the president of 3D Ops, which was founded and built in Chattanooga. The company uses 3D printers to produce perfectly-to-scale 3D models of organs from patients' scans.

"For the patient themselves and their families, this isn't a model of something else. When they can hold a model of something else, he [the patient] was hesitating whether to have the surgery at all. When he saw that [the tumor-infested kidney] he realized what he had to do for his family," said Campbell.

Campbell admits 3D printing is essentially as exciting as watching grass grow.

"Every time the head passes over it, the machine is just adding a little bit more material, in this case very specific to the anatomy of our patient," said Campbell.

Printing one organ can take anywhere from two hours to 24 hours. Each model costs approximately 400 dollars, but both doctors and creators say the visualization is well worth the price tag.

The program between 3D Ops and Erlanger is still in pilot mode. This means the two organizations are experimenting with a variety of materials to print the organs, as well as which doctors, surgeries, and specialties benefit the most. Dr. Keel says he thinks this will be most useful in solid organ cancers and for plastic surgery.

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