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UEA explores 3D printing for breast reconstruction surgeries

Researchers are using the technology to create surgical aids and biodegradable implants for cancer patients

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According to the University of East Anglia (UEA), researchers are currently exploring the potential of 3D printing to create surgical aids and biodegradable implants for breast reconstruction and breast-conserving surgeries.

The research project is aimed at investigating the use of 3D printing technology for medical applications, specifically how it can be used to create personalized surgical aids for breast reconstruction surgery and breast implants for breast-conserving surgery. This proof-of-concept project was funded by UEA Health and Social Care Partners (UEAHSCP), a research partnership that funds and facilitates early-stage research and innovative ideas.

The research team used a 3D scanner to capture the patient’s breast shape before the breast reconstruction surgery, to create a mold using the 3D printer. This personalized mold can be used as a surgical aid to measure the volume of the patient’s own tissue and shape for breast reconstruction – aiming to improve the quality and speed of the surgery.

The other aspect of the UEA project involved using patient’s MRI data to create a personalized implant, which was 3D printed using a biodegradable polymer, for breast-conserving surgery – an operation to remove the cancer while keeping as much of the breast tissue and shape as possible. Once printed, the 3D scaffold implant would be placed into a patient’s breast during surgery, with the patient’s own fat injected into it, and the implant then degrading in the body slowly over time.

“I firmly believe in the uniqueness of every individual and the need to address this in medical treatments. The use of 3D scanning and printing can help surgeons to do a better job. We have seen the medical applications of 3D printing in orthoepic surgery, such as making surgical guides for precise cutting. However, plastic surgery has not yet fully embraced the potential of 3D technology to improve the surgery’s precision and efficiency. The personalized breast mold is one example that looks promising to be used in real practice to achieve the benefits,” said Ken Tam, a PhD student at UEA’s School of Pharmacy.

UEA explores 3D printing for breast reconstruction surgeries - creating surgical aids and biodegradable implants for cancer patients.
Ken Tam.

“3D printing has already been playing an important role in advancing medicine. Personalized medicine and healthcare enabled by 3D printing technology will further advance and be more widely available in the next 5-10 years. Collaborating closely with our clinicians, patients, hospitals, and pharmaceutical industry, we are honored to be a part of the exciting transformation and committed in innovating solutions to address unmet clinical needs,” said Prof Sheng Qi, Professor of Pharmaceutical Material Science and Technology.

Conventional breast reconstruction often requires one or more correction surgeries after the initial operation to achieve the satisfactory shape of the breast of the patient. The personalized breast mold aims to improve the accuracy of the surgery and minimize the need for multiple surgeries, which will not only reduce the theatre time needed for each patient but also improve the clinical outcome and patient satisfaction.

“This project aligns perfectly with my passion for 3D printing and practical applications using scientific knowledge. Being a part of this project allows me to engage directly with cutting-edge technology and contribute to a field that has the potential to significantly improve patient outcomes. It’s where my professional interests and the potential for meaningful impact converge, and that’s why I decided to get involved,” said Ken.

While the technology is currently under development, the potential for this project is vast. Most notably, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) currently outsources its 3D printing services for some patients’ cases in which personalized surgical aid, tools, and surgical planning models are needed. According to the university, working in partnership with regional Trusts and establishing a regional medical 3D printing service in Norfolk could help to significantly reduce emissions and wider environmental impacts by reducing the need to outsource the 3D printing overseas – resulting in significant cost-savings for the regional Trusts.

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