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This Woman Can See Because Her Husband 3D-Printed Her Tumor

To help doctors remove his wife’s tumor, Michael Belzer printed them 3D model to practice on.

Pamela Shavaun Scott and her skull [via Make]

In William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral, the acclaimed author envisioned a not-too-distant future in which 3D printing is as ubiquitous for his characters as shopping at a convenience store is for us – where items as complicated and diverse as smartphones and designer drugs can be printed (“fabbed,” for “fabricated”) with ease. But that is science fiction, and we still live in a world of science fact, where, for most of us, 3D printing is not part of our everyday lives (...yet). Still, the technology has grown from an upscale – if fairly limited – hobby, to a serious tool for designers, engineers, and, in the case of one printing enthusiast, the means by which he helped save his wife’s eyesight.

After a series of MRIs indicated that a small tumor behind the left eye of Pamela Shavaun Scott had grown at an alarming rate, she and her husband Michael Balzer began bracing themselves for the possibility that Scott would require an invasive craniotomy in order to remove the growth – a surgery that, because of the tumor’s placement, could end up resulting in damaging side effects. It was then that Balzer, a graphics designer and 3D imaging specialist, decided to take a proactive step towards managing his wife’s health care. After obtained his Scott’s MRI data files, called DICOMs, Balzer used his design imaging skills to layer the scans, and came to the conclusion that his wife’s tumor hadn’t grown, it had simply been mismeasured. At this point, Balzer told Make:

“I thought, ‘why don’t we take it to the next level?’” Balzer says. “Let’s see what kind of tools are available so that I can take the DICOMs, which are 2D slices, and convert them into a 3D model.”

While the immediate crisis was over, Scott’s tumor still needed treatment. As Make explains, Balzer sent the 3D images to doctors around the country, hoping to find a less invasive surgical procedure for his wife.

Anterior skull section with skull based tumor by slo 3D creators on Sketchfab

Fortunately, Scott and Balzer found a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical center willing to perform a less-invasive surgery – one that involved micro-drilling above the left eyelid, rather than opening the skull entirely. To help the doctor prep for the operation, Balzer printed a scale model of his wife’s skull – complete with tumorous growth - and sent it to UPMC. Using that model, the UPMC surgical team was able to plot their procedure in accurate, three dimensional space.

Thanks in no small part to Balzer’s innovative print job, Scott’s tumor, which had begun to emmesh itself into her optic nerves, was successfully removed in the Spring of 2014. Had she waited any longer, it’s likely that Scott would have lost much of her eyesight as a result. Here’s what her skull looks like now:

Anterior Skull Section with tumor removed. by slo 3D creators on Sketchfab

If doctors planning a patient’s surgeries with the help of custom 3D printed models might sound like something out of science fiction, it’s a practice that Dr. Michael Patton, CEO of Austin, TX’s Medical Innovation Lab, tells Make, ”is going to become the new normal.” If you’re interested, instructions for 3D printing your own medical images are already available.

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