UI students visualizing future of medicine with 3D printing

By Chicago 6 Min Read

URBANA — When three Carle Illinois College of Medicine students got together for an assignment last semester, it didn’t take them long to realize how their 3D-printing knowledge could help the medical school on the University of Illinois campus.

That inspired second-year students Rand Kittani, Sid Limaye and Jose Beltran to work together to launch CIM3D, a group focused on 3D printing medical devices and models.

“A lot of faculty have ideas for things, but they don’t have actual 3D-printing experience,” Limaye said. “We’re kind of putting it on us right now to bring that to the campus.”

Some 3D-printed medical devices are already FDA-approved, including certain implants and prosthetics.

Other medical applications aren’t as directly related to the patient.

Surgeons can use scans of their patients’ internal organs to create 3D models and get a more tactile idea of what they’ll need to do before surgery begins.

“Every human is different in their anatomy, so it’s important to know what the procedure will look like before going in,” Kittani said.

The students running CIM3D hope to provide the resources for their classmates to test the possibilities of their own ideas.

“Our purpose really is to be liaisons, like ‘What do you need? What are you struggling with? Here’s where we need to go,’” Kittani said. “We like to encourage autonomy and ownership, in terms of the students owning the work, so we just try to kind of direct what they need to do and how to go about things.”

Before 3D printing comes digital 3D modeling. There are a variety of programs to make models with and many pre-made models available online, but it takes a certain level of skill to make an original design.

Beltran had worked as a technician for a 3D-printing company, and Limaye had experimented with computer-assisted design in high school, while Kittani had no experience with 3D design — though she was familiar with some 2D graphic-design programs.

“That just shows that the transition from anything similar to this is not that difficult,” Kittani said. “It’s something people from this generation can pick up on and kind of get better at.”

There are different 3D-design programs that are ideal for different skill levels, and 3D printers themselves are becoming more affordable and available for average consumers.

That’s great for CIM3D: The group has plans to expand applications for 3D printing in medical education.

“In the future, for various organs and different parts, you can tell students, ‘OK, print this at home and come back tomorrow, you’ll have an exam,’” Beltran said.

Even if students aren’t printing their own models, making the designs available for professors and teachers would be helpful for any school without regular access to cadavers for hands-on experience.

For schools like the UI, where students do get to work with cadavers, 3D-printed items can still make things easier.

One of the sample items the students have made is a print of half of a human pelvis.

Since half of the structure is missing, it’s easy to turn around and see parts of the bone that are hard to look at on full models — and no one had to remove it from a cadaver.

The trio had the idea to start CIM3D last semester but took the summer to get in touch with mentors and experts and find out what it would take to make it happen.

After truly kicking off in August, CIM3D has already held a handful of events, with more on the way.

Some events are hands-on opportunities for students to get a taste of the possibilities of this technology, like one workshop centered around modeling and printing stents.

Stents have been around since the 1980s; essentially, they’re small tubes that can be inserted into a vessel or duct to keep it open and allow fluid through.

They’re often used after heart attacks to reopen arteries.

“So the question was, hey, can we look at personalized medicine and design stents for a particular person, maybe to adapt to the curve of their vessel?” Limaye said.

The stents attendees designed at the workshop were actually printed, so they could see and hold the results of their work.

The goal was to get students thinking: What can be improved about existing medical technology?

“If we can show people the basics of stents, that might spark an idea, like, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’” Beltran said. “There’s someone on this campus or in our medical school that is probably saying, ‘We can do this in half the time.’ They already have it in them; they just need to visually see it.”

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