3D Printing to Improve Healthcare for Children

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I run the Engineering Prototypes and Implants for Children Lab, also known as the EPIC Lab, which is based in Kids Research at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, in Sydney, Australia. The focus of the EPIC Lab is to use 3D technology to develop pediatric medical devices with the goal of improving children’s lives. Combining my background in engineering and science with our clinical and academic leads, Professor David Little (pediatric orthopedic surgeon) and Professor Joshua Burns (Professor of pediatric neuromuscular rehabilitation), our work is driven by needs in the medical and surgical care of children. We are lucky to be co-located with the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, which enables us to work closely with many varied healthcare professionals on the frontline of children’s care. Our interdisciplinary team includes engineers, scientists, designers, and clinicians, who are all driven by the goal of making children’s lives better. 

A 3D printed spine with scoliosis (Instagram @epic_lab_)
A 3D printed spine with scoliosis (Instagram @epic_lab_)

At the EPIC Lab, we have 2 main research programs. The first focuses on the prototyping and commercialization of orthopedic implants for children and the second is on developing 3D printed ankle-foot orthoses for children. In addition to these, we also use 3D printing in the context of pre-surgical visualization, simulation models, and medical education. Our projects are largely driven by clinicians approaching us with challenges in their practice. We aim to solve these challenges collaboratively with short iterative design cycles, ensuring we are fulfilling the needs of our users. Our user-focused approach includes more than just the clinician, but also the patient, allied health professionals or any other critical cog in treatment.

Our team involves collaboration across many disciplines, including engineering, medicine and more (Instagram @epic_lab_)
Our team involves collaboration across many disciplines, including engineering, medicine and more (Instagram @epic_lab_)

There are many considerations that impact the design and function of medical devices for children more so than adults. It sounds corny, but children are not just small adults! Children have specific needs and simply scaling down the size of an adult device may not be appropriate. An example is to consider the way that children’s bones grow. In our program of developing orthopedic implants for children, it is critical that our devices are compatible with skeletal growth. Our pipeline of orthopedic devices either allows for continued growth during implantation or they take advantage of the growth in children’s bones to gradually correct deformities. 

A 3D printed heart for use in medical education (Instagram @epic_lab_)
A 3D printed heart for use in medical education (Instagram @epic_lab_)

Another critical factor for children’s medical devices is timely delivery, where the right device needs to be received at the right time. This is particularly important in assistive devices, including orthoses like ankle-foot orthoses (AFOs). AFOs are usually personalized thermoplastic braces worn around the foot and ankle that are prescribed to improve the ability to walk and the daily function of children and adults with neuromuscular and musculoskeletal disorders. Children are constantly growing out of their devices, which means that the efficient delivery of any assistive device is important to ensure continued mobility and function. For our research program on 3D printed ankle-foot orthoses AFOs, called Printhotics, we are focusing on improving the efficiency of the workflow to ensure the children can receive optimized devices as quick as possible. 

Pre-operative practice on a 3D printed bone
Pre-operative practice on a 3D printed bone

None of these research projects would be possible without access to 3D technologies like 3D scanning, computer-aided design, and 3D printing. Relatively cheap and easy access to these technologies enables the rapid development of new solutions from the ground up. The most rewarding part of my role is seeing the impact of empowering clinicians and collaborating with them to create solutions to challenges in their daily practice. 3D technologies have significantly lowered the barrier to entry for the development of new medical devices and I am so excited to see what amazing innovations will come from this.

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Sawbones (synthetic bones) being prepared for mechanical testing

About the Author:

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Dr. Tegan Cheng is a biomedical engineer and medical scientist at the EPIC Lab, Kids Research at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead. She works closely with clinicians to develop novel solutions to address unmet needs in pediatrics. Her main research areas are the development and commercialization of medical devices for children’s musculoskeletal conditions and the application of 3D printing to improve health outcomes for children. 

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