Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System and GE Healthcare are collaborating to create 3D printing applications using radiological scans and converting them into printable files.

Last week, the VA and GE officially announced a partnership that will help radiologists who specialize in cardiology, oncology, and orthopaedics, among other specialties to create 3D models for clinical settings. The project involves taking radiological scans and using fast, automated techniques to create normal and pathological anatomy models, such as plastic organs, bones, and tumors — a process that once took hours and will now only take a few minutes. The models help surgeons strategize necessary processes before they operate on a patient. According to Beth Ripley, PhD, MD, radiologist and chair of the VHA 3D Printing Advisory Committee, utilizing a model can save surgeons two hours, which can add up to $9,600 in cost avoidance and reduce the time that the patient has to be anesthetized.

Although now 20 VA hospitals use 3D printing, the technology has received an overall lukewarm response from the medical community. Radiologists are hesitant about the technique because they don’t know what to do with CAD or STL, the standard file formats in 3D modeling and printing. However, many consider 3D printing to be effective in unique and complicated surgeries, such as separating conjoined twins.

“For most radiologists, 3D images are limited to reconstructions on a computer screen,” said Dr. Ripley. “By harnessing the power of 3D printing with a rich data set, we are able to pull images out of the screen and into our hands, allowing us to interact with the data in a deeper way to fuel innovative, personalized care based on the unique needs of each of our patients.”

Dr. Ripley and her team plan on continuing to evolve their 3D printing program, and they’re currently working with Advanced Solutions, a bioprinting company to print bone. Through mixing fat cells with bone cells, they hope to grow natural bone, and by around 2022, they hope patients will be able to use the bones.