Researchers can attach sensors to the organ models to give surgeons real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue. Credit: McAlpine Research Group

Surgeons and medical students may be able to get better practice before surgery using new artificial organ models that are more lifelike than current models.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota have created artificial organ models from a 3D printer that mimic the exact anatomical structure, mechanical properties and look and feel of real organs.

The models include integrated soft sensors that can be used for practice surgeries to improve surgical outcomes for thousands of patients worldwide.

“We are developing next-generation organ models for pre-operative practice,” lead researcher Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering, said in a statement. “The organ models we are 3D printing are almost a perfect replica in terms of the look and feel of an individual's organ, using our custom-built 3D printers.

“We think these organ models could be 'game-changers' for helping surgeons better plan and practice for surgery,” he added. “We hope this will save lives by reducing medical errors during surgery.”

The majority of 3D printed organ models are made using hard plastics or rubbers, which limits their application for accurate prediction and replication of the organ’s physical behavior during surgery. The models are often too hard to cut or suture and lack an ability to provide quantitative feedback.

During the study, the researchers took MRI scans and tissue samples from the prostates of three patients. They then tested the tissue and developed customized silicone-based inks that can be tuned to precisely match the mechanical properties of each patient’s prostate tissue.

The researchers then developed unique inks from a custom-built 3D printer and attached soft, 3D printed sensors to the organ models.

“The sensors could give surgeons real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue,” Kaiyan Qiu, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper, said in a statement. “This could change how surgeons think about personalized medicine and pre-operative practice.”

Researchers now hope to use the new method to print lifelike models of more complicated organs, using multiple inks. They also hope to explore applications beyond surgical practice.

“If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create 'bionic organs' for transplants,” McAlpine said. “I call this the 'Human X' project.

“It sounds a bit like science fiction, but if these synthetic organs look, feel, and act like real tissue or organs, we don't see why we couldn't 3D print them on demand to replace real organs,” he added.

The study was published in Advanced Materials Technologies.