A heart made with the 3-D printer.

An Iowa City company has won a state grant to help it continue producing some unique models.

Neil Quellhorst of Protostudios says the grant paid for a new 3-D printer. “This particular printer is tailored and has special capabilities for printing anatomically accurate body parts,” Quellhorst says. He says other 3-D printers could give you a plastic model of a heart — but this one creates something that’s much better.

“Most importantly what this printer will do that most cannot — is it can actually mimic the material that it is printed on. In other words, if a surgeon were to grab a heart that we printed, the heart itself is printed in a material that closely mimics that of real heart tissue,” Quellhorst says. “And what they means is that they get an accurate feel.”

He says the surgeon can then know what they are going to encounter once they do an actual surgery. “That’s what makes it special — is it is able to accurately reproduce the various types of tissues that are included in the human body,” Quellhorst says. He says the printer uses several types of resins to print the body part.

“You can combine these resins in various ways and by combining them — that enables you as you print to change the characteristic of the material that is deposited,” according to Quellhorst. “So, you can on the fly change colors, you can change the various physical properties of the material. In other words, it can be very hard, it can be very squishy, it can be crumbly, or it can be very tough, like muscle material may be.”

Quellhorst says the printer uses advanced software that can take a scan of an organ and separate it out to give the printer an exact template of the organ. He says one example of that work is the request from a U-I Children’s Hospital doctor for the model of a child’s heart that had a hole in it.
He says the doctor pointed out an area that he was trying to fix and then discovered another problem from the model that he did not know existed. “He was actually able to see things by having the physical item in his hand and opening it up. He was able to see things that he normally wasn’t able to see with normal diagnostic techniques,” Quellhorst explains.

He says the model saved the doctor time in the operating room because he could prepare for the problem he found with the model that he normally wouldn’t have found until the surgery began. Quellhorst says heart models and throats have been the most request thus far. He says the number of requests from the University of Iowa doctors has increased in the year since they started printing human parts.”We’ve also done sections of a hand, an arm, a liver, a diseased liver, spinal sections as an aid for spinal surgery, things like that,” Quellhorst says.

Protostudios is a not-for-profit prototyping workshop within the University of Iowa’s Department of Innovation and Economic Development. It works with any company seeking prototypes. The Iowa Economic Development Authority Board recently awarded Protostudios a Strategic Infrastructure grant of $493,000 to pay for the 3-D printer upgrade.