A groundbreaking 3-D prostate model lets surgeons explore a patient’s anatomy in detail before operating. This new level of simulation could improve patient outcomes.

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A new 3-D prostate model may improve prostate surgery outcomes.
Image credit: M. McAlpine, University of Minnesota

All surgery comes with certain risks. With prostate surgery, these include erectile dysfunction and urinary problems.

Precision is vital to avoid excising healthy tissue, and the key to success is preparedness. Before opening up a patient, surgeons rely on scans and basic simulations — but there’s only so far they can go.

In recent months, a team of scientists from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) has been pushing the boundaries of surgical simulations further than ever before.

In the past, medical scientists and engineers have produced accurate and personalized models of organs using MRI scans and 3-D printers. Although visually accurate, the touch and feel of these models is far from authentic.

The NIBIB team, however, have gone one or two steps farther and created a completely new breed of prostate model.

In order to create this innovation, they joined forces with with a host of engineers and physicians from several departments across many institutions.

These included the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Urology, and Surgery at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the Center for Research in Education and Simulation Technologies in the University of Washington in Seattle, and Fiber Sciences and Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

The new technology doesn’t just look like a prostate; it feels like one, too. Šeila Selimović, Ph.D. — who is director of the NIBIB program in Biosensors — discusses the project, saying, “This project illustrates how successfully mechanical engineers and medical doctors can collaborate and develop novel and promising technologies for medical treatment.

Selimović continues, “The combination of this novel and unique 3-D printer with the prostate glands MRIs and prostate tissue samples is what enabled the researchers to create a 3-D printed prostate mimicking the real organ in terms of shape, size, and texture.”

The model was created using specially created silicone-based polymer “inks,” designed carefully to mimic the consistency and mechanical properties of a prostate. The research teams’ findings have been published in the December issue of Advanced Materials Technologies.

The inks were used to print the prostate model, which resulted in an anatomically accurate organ model, with the same elasticity and softness as the actual organ.”

Michael McAlpine, Ph.D., principal investigator

Earlier prostate models were useful for surgical planning, but with this life-like 3-D model, it is even possible to practice the surgery — including such actions as probing, cutting, and suturing.

Going one step farther, the model includes sensors that give surgeons real-time feedback as they interact with it. As McAlpine explains, “You can think about it like the children’s game of Operation when the guy’s nose lights up if you fail to remove the shin bone without bumping your forceps into his leg.”

He continues, “Our graphic readout of the amount of pressure being applied to the prostate model parallels the Operation patient’s nose lighting up to indicate that you’ve got to try again — a little more gently next time.”

The following video demonstrates the capabilities of the 3-D organ:

“This quantitative, real-time feedback could change how surgeons think about the personalized medicine and preoperative practice,” says lead study author Dr. Kaiyan Qiu, at the University of Minnesota.

The research shows how successful collaboration between multiple and disparate specialties can be. In the future, these types of models could be extended to other, more complex tissues and organs.

And, looking even farther down the line, McAlpine explains, “I think of this as the ‘Human X’ project. If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create ‘bionic organs’ for transplants.”

It seems that the future is bright for 3-D surgical models.