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This Ultra-Realistic 3D-Printed Infant Could Advance Medicine

It has a detailed skeleton, as well as an intricate silicone heart and lungs, too.

Of all the things that have been 3D-printed–houses, wedding rings, burritos–the baby skeleton ranks up there on the creepiness scale with the 3D-printed unborn fetus. But there’s a real medical need for it–to help doctors and nurses practice infant CPR without hurting any actual infants.

The Eindhoven University of Technology PhD student Mark Thielen began trying to create a more realistic model of a baby when he realized that the only way to measure a doctor’s performance on CPR was by objectively measuring if they’d followed medical protocol. What if a baby mannequin could be embedded with sensors that could give real-time feedback to the doctor, while also mimicking the biological feel of the baby’s body in order to give them practice that more closely mirrored real life?

As an industrial designer, Thielen turned to 3D printing to create this more realistic, tactile feedback. After taking a full-body MRI of an infant, he and his team were able to start printing models of the baby’s bones, heart, and lungs using different materials.

Now years into the project, which began when he was a master’s student, Thielen tells Co.Design that he has successfully created replicas of the complete skeleton, made from thermoplastic polyurethane, which is stiff enough to mimic human bone and cartilage. The lungs are printed from quickly curing silicon. Printing an infant heart was much more difficult; while it’s easy to make a 3D model of a heart, Thielen wanted a structure that had four interior chambers and four valves so that he could build sensors to measure the pressure on the heart during CPR. To do so, he used a combination of 3D printing and injection molding to create the detailed inner structures.

Now, he and his team are working to create life-like skin made of silicon gel for the mannequin and integrating pressure and compression sensors into the heart and lungs. They hope to have a complete mannequin by the end of the year.

Thielen works in partnership with the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Maxima Medical Center in the Netherlands, where doctors and nurses can give him subjective feedback about how close the baby mannequins come to the bodies of real infants. He envisions his baby mannequins will become part of hospital training rooms, where doctors and nurses simulate surgeries and other procedures.

While Thielen is focused on CPR testing for now, he can imagine adding more 3D-printed body parts and sensors to a mannequin to allow for other kinds of simulations. Ultimately, the same techniques could be used to create adult-sized models. The applications for a more life-like human mannequin equipped with sensors are numerous, including crash test dummies that can tell you exactly how much pressure is exerted on the body and its specific organs.

Now that it’s clear that 3D printing isn’t quite the consumer technology juggernaut it was hyped to be, medical applications like Thielen’s baby mannequins point toward a more realistic, but no less exciting future–one where surgeons can practice on a 3D-printed model of the person they’re operating on. While that’s still far off, the 3D-printed signs are all there.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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