Northwestern University researchers have collaborated on a new three-dimensional modeling approach to training pediatric surgeons that makes practice surgeries far more realistic and safer.

Katherine Barsness, M.D., an associate professor of surgery and medical education at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, teamed up with colleagues at Feinberg's Innovations Lab and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to create life-sized, reusable models of a newborn’s ribcage. McCormick’s Segal Design Institute produces the models with 3-D printers, which turn digital files into three-dimensional solid objects one very thin layer of a material at a time. The resulting plastic ribcages become anatomically correct replicas of an infant’s chest cavity when covered with a synthetic silicone skin and filled with tissue.

For beginning surgeons, the Innovations Lab prints plaster molds to make silicon organs that are placed in the ribcage. More advanced surgeons work with fetal bovine tissue which would normally be thrown out by commercial slaughterhouses. The bovine tissue is surgically configured to mimic rare neonatal congenital defects.

Barsness said models like hers will eventually become the norm for training surgeons, instead of having trainees practice in the operating room or work on live animals. However, she also listed several challenges that prevent that future from becoming an immediate reality.

“First is dedicated time for education outside the operating room. We need programs to let their trainees leave clinical duties for dedicated simulation-based education,” Barsness said. “Second, there are very few pediatric surgeons in the world who are trained to conduct this type of education.”

Funding is another issue. Though materials for printing the ribcage cost only about $200, the printers themselves are a significant investment, as are the resources to support it. But Barsness said acceptance of the models—proving their value—is the biggest struggle right now.

“That acceptance is predicated on data. So our next step is to show that using the simulation models really does improve physicians’ performances in the operating room,” she added.

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