Man saves his wife’s sight with the help of 3D printing


After a misdiagnosis of a brain tumor, one Maker turned to 3D printing and imaging. 


Without question, 3D printing is rapidly evolving. All you needed to do was take a look around CES 2015 to note that the technology is inching closer and closer to mainstream popularity. One area in particular making great strides is the medical space, as we’ve seen everything in recent months from 3D-printed splints to prosthetics to organs, helping humans and animals alike get a second lease on life. The latest success story comes out of Pittsburgh, where a man was able to save his wife’s sight by 3D printing a replica of her tumor.

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As MAKE: Magazine’s Sara Breselor first revealed, during the summer of 2013, Pamela Shavaun Scott began to experiencing frequent, severe headaches. That December, doctors confirmed that the pain was a result of a three-centimeter brain tumor lodged behind her left eye. Immediately, Scott’s husband Michael Balzer requested her DICOM files, which is the commonly used standard digital format for medical imaging data. Following another MRI a few months later, the radiologist came back with a horrifying report: The tumor had grown, indicating a far more severe condition than originally diagnosed.

Balzer — who is a 3D imaging expert behind the website AllThings3D — used Photoshop to layer the new DICOM files on top of the previous pictures in an effort to compare the radiologists’ findings. It wasn’t before he realized that, in fact, the tumor hadn’t grown at all. Instead, the radiologist had simply measured from a different point on the image. Once his relief subsided, a furious Balzer was more determined than ever to stay in control of his wife’s treatment, MAKE writes.

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“I thought, ‘why don’t we take it to the next level? Let’s see what kind of tools are available so that I can take the DICOMs, which are 2D slices, and convert them into a 3D model,” explained Balzer.

The 3D imaging aficionado wanted a tangible model of Scott’s cranium so that he could get perspective on the tumor’s size and location, then think about what kind of treatment to pursue. Doctors had instructed that the removal process for a tumor of this nature — which is commonly known as a meningioma — is sawing open the skull and lifting the brain to remove the mass. This, of course, comes with several risks ranging from potential cognitive damage to blindness.

Subsequently, Balzer began experimenting with 3D imaging tech from other parts of the world. Using open-source software called InVesalius, which uses DICOM, MRI and CT files to visualize medical images, along with other imaging tools like 3D Slicer, he was able to create renderings of his wife’s tumor.

The couple sent them out to hospitals across the country around February, Balzer told MAKE. “Then he uploaded the files to Sketchfab and shared them with neurosurgeons around the country in the hope of finding one who was willing to try a new type of procedure.”

A neurosurgeon at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center agreed to consider a less invasive operation, one where the meningioma would be accessed and removed through Scott’s left eyelid via a micro drill. Balzer had adapted the volume renderings for 3D printing and produced a few full-size models of the front section of his wife’s skull on his [Atmel based] MakerBot. A few weeks prior to the surgery, he went ahead and sent those renderings over to the surgeons to provide them with a better idea of the area they were working with.

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Lo’ and behold, the surgeons were able to remove 95% of the tumor, and Scott was back to work in a matter of just three weeks. While Balzer’s 3D renderings may not be the only reason the procedure went smoothly, it does illustrate the tremendous potential of 3D printing technology. Those wishing to learn all about the experience and procedure can read the entire write-up from MAKE: Magazine here.

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