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Surgeons use 3-D printing to save a baby's life

I've told you about some of the medical breakthroughs with 3-D printing before. There's the incredible prosthetic arm, the revolutionary 3-D printed cast and researchers have even been able to print 3-D human blood vessels.

If you haven't heard about it by now, 3-D printing is a great new technology that actually prints items in 3 dimensions, rather than just words or pictures on a page like traditional printers.

But the next 3-D printing technology doesn't just replace a body part. Now surgeons have printed a 3-D brain that actually saved an infant's life.

So here's the situation. Little Gabriel Mandeville was born with congenital defect in his brain that causes constant seizures. But these are not even regular seizures. The first one, right after he was born, nearly took his life, and the ones he's had since then - well, they have a devastating effect on his life.

The seizures are called "mind erasers" because every time Gabriel experiences one, he literally forgets everything he's learned. Gabriel's parents were warned that one day he could even forget their faces.

And despite the best efforts of Gabriel's doctors at Boston Children's Hospital, the seizures continued to ravage his little brain. "He was missing huge milestones in his childhood," said Erin Mandeville, Gabriel's mother.

So his doctors recommended a drastic surgery on the baby's brain. Called a hemispherectomy, it is a complicated surgery that disconnects the healthy side of the brain from the damaged side of the brain that is causing the seizures.

This procedure, which basically separates the brain into two parts, should stop the seizures. But Gabriel faced incredible risks as surgeons worked on his delicate brain inside his tiny head.

Gabriel's parents were worried, but the doctor reassured them that they had an ace up their sleeve. Gabriel would be the first infant patient ever to have his brain recreated in 3-D for the brain surgeons to rehearse the procedure.

A 3-D mold of Gabriel's brain was made by using his CT and MRI scans to create a digital mock-up, then the entire thing was printed in 3-D. Boston Children's Hospital has a 3-D printer on site, so it was only a matter of hours before the finished product was ready.

The entire model is printed, accurate to 16 microns per layer of printed plastic. That's the size of a droplet in a cloud. Blood vessels are also printed inside the model, but in a different color to contrast with the gray matter.

For doctors and surgeons in training, the new 3-D printing technology is a godsend. Dr. Joseph Madsen, the director of the epilepsy program at Boston Children's Hospital, knows that even the most experienced surgeon needs a practice run to effectively complete their operations.

"No one wants to be the first person to get a hemispherectomy from a surgeon, ever," he adds.

Surgeons used this model to show Gabriel's parents how the operation would proceed, and they were also informed about what complications could arise from the surgery. Gabriel's own surgery happened soon after, and the now 18-month old toddler is completely seizure-free.

The 3-D printing of a patient's organs to practice on before surgery is just one more instance of how technology is saving lives every day. What else could 3-D printing accomplish?

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