Brisbane bio-tech lab creates ‘revolutionary’ 3D-printed body parts to treat cancer patients

On the upper levels of an inconspicuous building on the Brisbane Royal and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), 3D printing technology is creating products that may one day save your life.

The Herston Biofabrication Institute says it is the first organisation in Australia that brings doctors, engineers and academics together to focus on the many medical uses of 3D printing.

Printers slowly build up layers of resin to create a desired body part for cancer patients.

“The goal was very much to support that coordination of engineers and researchers with clinicians and consumers on one site,” General Manager Mathilde Desselle said.

Ms Desselle said the institute employed 50 employees and about 25 students who apply 3D printing to a “myriad sub-specialties”.

Moulds are used for patients and also provide students with realistic training simulations.

3D printers build moulds out of resin that are designed to attack tumours.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

“We’re able [to do this] from medical imaging, such as when you have a CT scan. We take those images and create a 3D model of your anatomy,” she said.

“Then we use that to 3D print and model [something] that will look and feel like the real thing.

Essentially, it gives doctors a practice run at drilling into your skull before metal touches bone.

Ms Desselle estimated Metro North Health will need 7,000 more staff over the next decade to meet patient needs.

Researchers at Herston biofabrication Institute
Senior Medical Physicist Rachael Wilks, General Manager of the Herston Biofabrication Institute Mathilde Desselle and Director of Medical Physics in Cancer Care Tanya Kairn (L-R).(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

“To help support this, we need to look at ways where we can automate,” she said.

“Today, everything is personalised, and healthcare is going that same way.

“We need to keep doing better and better at matching solutions to the individual patients. That’s what 3D printing allows us to do.”

Plastics that act like human tissue

RBWH Director of Medical Physics in Cancer Care, Tanya Kairn already knows how meaningful this technology could be for patients.

She said the use of 3D printing technology has been “revolutionary” for her patients.

A model human head has the eyes of someone who has faced radiation one too many times.

The head comes apart in layers, showing different densities and patterns.

Woman points to 3D skull
Plastics that are hard and brittle to touch react like human brain tissue when exposed to radiation.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

Dr Kairn said technology like this has been used to measure radiation doses for specific patients to make treatment safer.

“We can calculate that dose, and we can predict that dose, but we can’t measure it,” she said.

“So, what we need is a really good replica of the patient, that includes all these different densities.”

Reducing radiation pain among skin cancer patients

The institute has also used 3D printing to optimise radiation treatment for skin cancer.

Without a manufactured layer being placed on the skin, radiation levels can build up in the underlying flesh and have little effect on the skin.

“For a patient with skin cancer, what we want is to be able to treat the skin where the cancer is, and also be able to treat the underlying tissue where the cancer has invaded,” Dr Kairn said.

This layer is called a “bolus”, which is made from wax and other materials and has been used for decades.

Dr Kairn said 3D printing has made a “huge difference” to the pain experienced by skin cancer patients.

To demonstrate, Dr Kairn held up two red nose moulds, as well as two oddly shaped blue moulds made for people whose faces have been eaten away by cancers.

3d printed mould of a nose
A 3D printed mould of a nose for a patient with cancer in their face.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

Dr Kairn said eliminating the need for a health professional to physically touch patients’ “painful, inflamed cancerous tissue” to form a mould has been “revolutionary”.

“We’ve treated over 100 patients using these types of devices,” she said.

While face cancers are a common use for the technology, it can be used on any part of the body with an external cancer.

‘A little itty bitty radioactive source’

While the work of Dr Kairn deals with external radiation, Senior Medical Physicist Rachael Wilks deals with radioactive sources inside the body.

Dr Wilks has been working on a clinical trial that utilises 3D printed moulds to treat “a whole range of gynaecological cancers” using brachytherapy.

Brachytherapy is the insertion of radioactive material inside the body and is sometimes known as internal radiation.

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