Interview with Professor David Zopf

Jan 06, 2020

Dr. Zopf is an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Otolaryngology, as well as an Affiliate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Zopf’s clinical focus is in caring for children with congenital malformations of the head and neck. He is also part of the Scaffold Tissue Engineering Group in the Department of Biomedical Engineering where he and his colleagues have led the field of medical 3D printing to aid in the treatment of these patients. Among other innovations, his team developed a patient-specific, 3D printed airway splint, culminating in a landmark New England Journal of Medicine article detailing this innovation as well as the potential of 3D printing in general for the production of personalized medical devices.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to aid in the healing process of children and families. The smiles, high fives, hugs and knowing that a child has improved quality of life for years to come brings me great fulfillment. In addition to aspiring for excellence in clinical care, I have a passion for innovation and continuing to improve the field through research and education. Our research initiatives have already resulted in exciting, life-changing translational developments for children. The future is bright for further innovation in otolaryngology. “-David A. Zopf, M.D.

Professor Zopf will be speaking at the upcoming U. Michigan event.

When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

David: A colleague of mine, Dr. Glenn Green, suggested we have a meeting with Dr. Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineer with 3D printing expertise.  In an instant, an explosion of ideas went off. I immediately knew there would be unlimited potential fusing 3D Printing and our surgical field.  That spark has fueled a tremendous amount of innovation from our group and I am confident we are just beginning.

What inspired you to start your journey in 3D printing ?

David: My tissue engineering research focuses on scaffold-based tissue engineering.  Our primary goal is to develop solutions that are ready to go to the clinic and OR.  As such we have to be very thoughtful not to introduce components to our techniques that would impede FDA approval.

I currently utilize techniques that require a tremendous amount of complexity – such as harvest large portions of the patient’s rib to carve a new ear.  Envisioning simplifying that process and shifting the need for precision to a 3D Printer would transform that procedure and likely improve outcomes for patients.  It would also facilitate the ability to help more patients in a quicker manner.

Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing (bio-printing/bio-fabrication)?

David: I’m fortunate to have some of my inspirations be my mentors, Drs. Glenn Green and Scott Hollister.  They set an example for me to be always available, unwaveringly supportive of ideas, and a strong advocate for the trainees and students working with me. They have also instilled in my what putting passion into your work looks like.

I am also fortunate that my research has immediate impact for patients.  Seeing a clinical improvement for a patient that was struggling – for example, giving a child the ability to breath with a novel 3D printed device, when they were previously struggling – is the greatest reward and inspiring in every sense.

What motivates you the most for your work?

David: The process of innovation is incredibly exciting.  Going from the riveting process of idea generating with brilliant colleagues, to iteration and refinement of those ideas, to bedside application and improvement in patient care is wildly motivating.

What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?

David: The biggest obstacles are time and money.  The ratio of ideas to hours to develop those ideas is terribly imbalanced.  Futher, we need resources to fund the development of those ideas. Funding for our staff, tools, and materials is always a huge need.  If we were working on one solution, it would be less of a need, but the amount of innovation coming from our group is ever expanding and we want to capture and develop all of that energy, but again that takes time and resources.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in 3D Printing/bio-printing?

David: Cost is a challenge, though we are seeing these come down.  

Some of the models created by the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery using 3D printers. Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore?

David: Work hard, really hard towards the things that are of greatest importance to them. The world is filled with distraction – don’t get distracted, stay focused.

Bad advice:  “You can’t do it all.  You can either be an excellent doctor or an excellent researcher, but not both.”  Such terrible advice to give someone that is passionate about multiple things. I have found that my passion in each arena of my career and life positively impacts the other arena.  My inspirations for research ideas come from shortcomings I have encountered in doing my best as a physician and vice versa.

If you could have a giant billboard to promote a message to millions and even billions of people in our community, what message would that be?

David: We are all on the same team.  Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

What were/was the best investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?

David: Any investment in passionate individuals, without a doubt – better than the highest-end printer.  An example is Allison Powell, a brilliant research fellow, whom I supported to do international outreach and research.  The time and support I provide future scientists, physicians, teachers, will have a logarithmic impact.

What was the worst investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?

David: Can’t think of any.  I think I subconsciously block out the negative.

What was/is the biggest risk you took in your career?

David: Focusing my research time on a very novel area – 3D Printing in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.  I had other really mature research projects in progress that I had to put aside.

What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?

David: My wife and children (3, 4th on the way).  Family and friends are very important to me.  Being outside – my 2-year-old boy throws such a fit when we have to come inside.  I do too but internalize it.

What is your favorite quote? Why?

David: All things are possible for those who believe.

What does the word “3DHEALS” mean to you?  =)

David: To me, 3DHEALS means globally promoting and supporting innovation in 3D Printing and Medicine.  Pretty awesome.

Publications by Professor Zopf:

Bioresorbable airway splint created with a three-dimensional printer

Effects of sterilization on an extracellular matrix scaffold: part I. Composition and matrix architecture

Computer Aided–Designed, 3-Dimensionally Printed Porous Tissue Bioscaffolds for Craniofacial Soft Tissue Reconstruction

Treatment of severe porcine tracheomalacia with a 3-dimensionally printed, bioresorbable, external airway splint

Design control for clinical translation of 3D printed modular scaffolds

Computer-aided design and 3D printing to produce a costal cartilage model for simulation of auricular reconstruction

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