After Evelyn Galban, a neurosurgeon and lecturer in the Department of Clinical Studies-Philadelphia in the School of Veterinary Medicine, examined a recent patient—a dog named Millie with a bony growth protruding from its skull—she began to consider novel approaches to planning out a surgical procedure. High-tech scanning equipment and software allowed her to visualize the deformity in three dimensions on the computer screen, but she imagined it would be even better to physically handle a replica of Millie’s skull.
“It’s difficult to fully understand the malformation until we have it in our hands,” she says. “That usually doesn’t happen until we’re in surgery.”
A few Google searches on “3D printing” and a call to PennDesign later, Galban’s idea became reality. In a unique collaboration that melds the veterinary expertise of Galban and neurology residents Jon Wood and Leontine Benedicenti with the know-how of PennDesign’s Stephen Smeltzer and Dennis Pierattini, three-dimensional printers are being used to produce models that precisely replicate injuries or deformities of pet dogs and cats. Such applications have the potential to improve patient care and veterinary training at Penn Vet, while stretching the imaginations of PennDesign students and faculty.
Though Smeltzer and Pierattini did not anticipate the call from Galban to use their Fabrication Lab’s three-dimensional printing capabilities, they were eager to help.
“We are very interested in finding more ways that we can explore the potential of the equipment and fathom its depths,” says Pierattini. “It’s good for our students, as well.”
After consulting with PennDesign faculty, Galban transformed the CAT scan files into a format that the 3D printers could recognize. Out came the skull of Millie: composed of gypsum powder bound by acrylic and sealed with a super glue-like substance to make it rigid.
In a case like this, Galban says that a model could not only enable surgeons to practice techniques and map out the procedure ahead of time, but they could also design a custom “patch” to replace the portion of malformed skull that would be removed during the surgery. Until recently, that design took place during the operation, and meant a longer procedure. Full-color 3D printing could also allow surgeons to test approaches to drilling into bone that would avoid contact with critical blood vessels and other tissues.
Beyond Millie, Wood has examined other cases that might benefit from having a physical model, including a cat with a skull injury from a dog bite, and a dog that broke two vertebrae after being hit by a falling object.
Meanwhile, at PennDesign, Smeltzer is expanding his sense of the potential of 3D printed materials.
“Here in the Design school, we typically think of the outputs from these machines as just prototypes or models,” he says. “Now these objects have opened up to have applications in the real world, and that’s fascinating and enjoyable to see. Last week I had no idea that this was going to be happening, and now all of a sudden I have a vested interest in Millie.”
Originally published on November 7, 2013