At U Penn, 3-D printing helps improve quality of animal care

The notion that 3-D printing is just another parlor trick in technology’s bag of distractions is quickly dying, and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine is helping to hasten the pace. Say hello to 3-D printing’s next biggest application: animal surgery. 

Ordinarily, the 3-D printers in PennDesign’s Fabrication Lab are used to print out geometric models, architectural forms and other doodads. But for the School of Veterinary Medicine’s purpose, those 3-D printers are more or less skull machines.

Consider, for example, the case of patient Millie, a canine with a skull deformity that was limiting her quality of life. Penn lecturer and neurosurgeon Evelyn Galban took on the case, ultimately coming to the conclusion that she would need to actually handle to dog’s skull to get anywhere with diagnosis and treatment. 

“It’s difficult to fully understand the malformation until we have it in our hands,” she said via a release. “That usually doesn’t happen until we’re in surgery.”

However, being that we live in a world where both 3-D printers and CAT scan machines exist, that no longer has to be the case. Galban worked with PennDesign’s Stephen Smeltzer and Dennis Pierattini to produce models based on CAT scan files of Millie’s head that lead to a 3-D printed model of the pup’s skull.

The result is a rigid gypsum powder and acrylic head bound by a type of epoxy that very closely approximates Millie’s. From there, Galban will be able to examine various treatment options and surgical procedures with a clearer picture of what it is her team will be dealing with. 

A good technology, to be sure, but with additions like full-color printing and the like, even more accurate models that show tissues like blood vessels and arteries could develop. But have no fear: Pierattini says he plans to delve even further into 3-D printing to help our four-legged friends.

“We are very interested in finding more ways that we can explore the potential of the equipment and fathom its depths,” he said.

In terms of application, those depths appear to be endless: training, treatment, education—the list goes on.  There just might not be enough gypsum powder in Philadelphia.