At the European Association of Urology congress in Stockholm, Sweden, surgeons from Japan announced that they have created 3D-printed tumor-containing kidneys for the use of simulated cancer surgery.

The much-hyped technology of 3D printing is beginning to make its mark in clinical and surgical fields. In 2012, researchers used 3D-printed patterns of blood vessel networks as part of a step toward whole-organ regeneration.

More recently, Medical News Today reported on extensive facial reconstruction on a motorcycle crash victim, which was carried out by surgeons in the UK with the aid of 3D printing.

The Kobe University surgeons who presented their work at the European Association of Urology (EAU) congress, however, were not looking to create replacement kidneys. Instead, they were using 3D printing to produce exact scale models of the affected kidneys in patients who have kidney cancer.

The eighth most common cancer affecting adults, kidney cancer is usually treated surgically. But the surgery is difficult and stressful, with high demands on speed and accuracy.

Using computer tomography (CT), the surgeons produced 3D scans of their patients’ kidneys. From this, a transparent 3D-printed model was constructed. The model was transparent so that the surgeons could see exactly where the patients’ blood vessels were positioned in their kidneys.

The surgeons were then able to simulate the surgery on the kidney before performing the real surgery – which was performed robotically.

“The use of this ‘hands-on’ model system gave us a 3D anatomical understanding of the kidney and the tumor,” says lead researcher Dr. Yoshiyuki Shiga. “This enabled the surgeon to work on a smaller area.”

3d printed kidney with tumorShare on Pinterest
The models are transparent so that the surgeons can see exactly where the patients’ blood vessels are positioned in their kidneys.
Image credit: European Association of Urology

Dr. Shiga says this is important as it allows a reduction of the interruption to the blood supply that occurs during surgery to remove kidney tumors. The normal average of this interruption time is 22 minutes.

But, by first practicing on the 3D-printed kidney, the surgeons were able to reduce the interruption time to just 8 minutes in one case.

“We also found that where we had to remove part of the kidney, the fact that we knew the exact location of the blood vessels helped us greatly,” adds Dr. Shiga.

“At the moment this is still an expensive technique, adding between $500 and $1,500 to the cost of surgery, but we hope that if it is more widely used then costs will fall.”

So far, Dr. Shiga’s team has produced 10 3D kidney models – each printed using a commercially available Objet Connex 3D printer – to assist in cancer surgery.

Speaking on behalf of the EAU, Prof. Joan Palou, director of the European School of Urology in Barcelona, Spain, says that the organization has established the European School of Urology training group in order “to promote, stimulate and standardize the learning process.”

Prof. Palou suggests that this new 3D printing process, “if it is developed appropriately,” may become a part of the training program:

It looks interesting as a new methodology to improve and facilitate to learn robotic surgery. It shows great potential, especially in the most difficult cases. Any surgery benefits from the surgeon being experienced and knowing what to expect, and at this point this seems to be the best simulation we have.”