Medical education research: 3D printed models fill gap in anatomy teaching

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By Nicole Lim, Senior Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations

 

Imagine holding a human elbow joint, skin peeled away to reveal the structures below. You can freely explore and examine the different textures of the muscle and bone, while colour coding helps you pick out nerve fibres and blood vessels, allowing you to delve deep into the human body.

This is exactly what a new 3D printed multi-material, multi-coloured anatomical model allows students at LKCMedicine to do. The idea to create 3D printed ‘carbon copies’ of real human body parts was conceived by LKCMedicine Assistant Professor and Head of Anatomy Sreenivasulu Reddy Mogali who spotted a gap in current teaching resources.

Medical schools around the world face a shortage of human cadavers, with many relying on other resources, such as plastinated specimens, clinical imaging and even plastic models. Each comes with its down drawbacks such as availability, cost, lack of texture and loss of flexibility, said Asst Prof Reddy.

He added, “We wanted to create an affordable and accessible source of anatomically correct specimens that mimic the touch and feel of human tissues. And 3D printing technologies offered exciting new opportunities for us to explore this idea.”

Working closely with experts in multi-material printing at the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing at NTU, this collaborative effort took just shy of two years to realise. Supported by an NTU EdeX grant, the team started by CT scanning a full arm specimen, imaging it in 1mm thick slices. Focusing on the elbow joint, Asst Prof Reddy manually labelled the different structures in each of the 200-odd images to create the blueprint, while the 3D printing experts worked on developing the right textures and colours for the model.

Singapore Centre for 3D Printing Assistant Professor Yeong Wai Yee said, “In this novel application of 3D printing technologies, we’ve combined soft elastomers and rigid plastics to create a specimen that feels realistic, and worked on colour blends that help distinguish tissue type.”

Reddy with 3D printed elbow - 2.JPGReddy with 3D printed elbow.JPG 
L-R: Asst Prof Reddy shows off a 3D printed elbow joint model that can complement other anatomy teaching resources; and demonstrates the flexibility of the 3D printed specimen


To evaluate the learning experience this new resource offers, the team surveyed LKCMedicine then-Year 2 students. The survey results, which were published as part of a paper on this new resource in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, showed that the 3D printed models are a good supplement to plastinated specimens. Students cited several features unique to the 3D printed models as positive enhancements. These include the learning support offered by the colour coding, flexibility and that less care was needed when handling the 3D printed specimen.

And even if a 3D printed specimen is damaged, replacing it is much simpler. Re-printing an elbow, for example, costs about $400 and takes a day to produce, whereas in the absence of donated cadavers, a plastinated specimen of the full upper limb costs as much as $12,000 and comes with a long delivery lead time.

Following the positive feedback from students and experts, the LKCMedicine team is working on printing a full arm model. This will be used as an additional learning resource in the musculoskeletal teaching block in April 2018, giving students more opportunities to interact with and examine anatomical specimens up close.

Asst Prof Reddy said, “While these 3D printed models provide a supplementary tool, they could be used more extensively in institutions that currently rely on plastic models or for whom maintaining a cadaveric lab is not possible.”

With these models, the armamentarium of anatomy resources receives a great boost as the discipline remains a cornerstone of medical education.

“Today’s anatomy is tomorrow’s surgery,” quipped Asst Prof Reddy.