Influencers: An Interview with Dr. Michael Itagaki (Embodi3D.com) on 3DPrinting in Healthcare

The following is the entire transcript of my interview with Dr. Michael Itagaki. Dr. Itagaki is currently a practicing interventional radiologist in Seattle, Washington.  Dr. Itagaki is also the creator of 3D printing education Embodi3d.com
Q:
How did you become interested in 3D printing technique?
A:
I became interested in 3D printing about two years ago when I heard about the work being done at JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii. JPAC had a very unique problem. They would recover the remains of US servicemen who died in wars all around the globe, Vietnam, Korea, the South Pacific, Europe, etc. Those remains were usually skeletal, and considerable study and analysis were required for each set of remains to determine the circumstances of death. There were often bullet holes or other abnormalities that could yield valuable information. On the other hand, as these were American servicemen who died in combat, there was considerable pressure to bury the remains to provide closure to families and convey the honor that was due. So how do you study remains that you have to bury? That was the problem being faced at JPAC. Their solution was to perform CT scans of the remains and create 3D printed replicas for study. The original remains could then be buried. It was the first time I saw that 3D printing could provide solutions to real problems in the biomedical arena.
 Q:
What was the first project you worked on in this space?
A:
I think my first project was an attempt to create a vertebral body from a CT scan. It was a pretty simple project. I just wanted to see if it could be done. Also, the vertebral body had the benefit of being relatively small and thus not expensive to have printed. I actually made this file available for free download on my website. http://www.embodi3d.com/files/file/16-lumbar-vertebra/
 Q:
What kind of difficulties/frustration did you encounter in your initial experiences?
A:
I initially assumed, as many do, that anything that could be digitally modeled could be 3D printed. When I actually tried to make something, I found that this was far from the truth. There are still significant limitations in what can be 3D printed. First of all, 3D printed objects still need to obey the laws of physics. Just because a digital model can stand on thin, spindly legs, for example, doesn’t mean that those legs will physically support the model when it is actually made. Second, there are a variety of materials that models can be 3D printed in. Each of those materials has its own characteristics and limitations. For example, materials have differences in how thin walls or wire-like structures can be. This is due to differences in the actual mechanical properties of the material. Third, there are many different kinds of actual 3D printing methods. Models can be made using fused deposition, laser sintering, stereolithography, casting, and a variety of other methods. It was incredibly difficult and frustrating to learn the nuances of different physical, material, and printing constraints. There was a lot of trial and error involved.
Q:
During the past two years when you worked in the space, what has changed in the past few years/months/decades?
A:
There has been tremendous growth in the variety of materials that are available, type and number of high-end printing services, as well as rapid reduction in cost in consumer 3D printers. It’s been really amazing at how quickly things are moving, and there is no indication that these improvements will stop anytime soon.
Q: What technical environment/tools have you been using to accomplish your goals?
A:
For my particular area, biomedical and anatomically-based 3D printing, there aren’t very many tools available. A few specialized software vendors sell expensive and proprietary software packages. These are too expensive for the average user. I have found free software packages can be just as useful if you know how to use them. I use Osirix for Macintosh for my initial data conversions, and Blender and MeshMixer for Windows for subsequent processing. If you’re a Mac person all  three software packages are available for Mac. Osirix, however, is not available on Windows.
Q:
What are your most significant works in the area?
A:
I created a customized 3D printed model of a patient’s splenic artery aneurysms to practice and test surgical equipment prior to an actual surgery. The consensus among multiple specialists involved in the patient’s care was that repair of the aneurysms was impossible and the patient would need to have her spleen removed with a splenectomy, which is something the patient did not want. By practicing and testing my surgical equipment in the 3D model prior to the surgery I was able to figure out what combination of equipment would work, thus eliminating a significant amount of trial and error during the actual surgery. The 10 hour surgery was a success, and the patient saved her spleen. Without using the 3D printed model, it would have never been successful. I’m currently in the process of having this published in a medical journal.
Q:
What are you working on right now?
A:
Currently I’m working on a process to generate a web or lace-like texture to bony models. In addition to being aesthetically unique and interesting, this has several practical advantages such as reduced material consumption during 3D printing. I’m going to be placing several skull models with this effect on my website, embodi3D.com, for free download. [See below]
Q:
What is your wildest dream of 3D printing in healthcare industry?
A:
I believe that in 20 years of 3D printing will be like color laser printing was 20 years ago. In the 1990s color laser printing was very new and very expensive. Color laser printers cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and prints cost several dollars per sheet. Now high quality color laser prints can be made for pennies. I see 3D printing in the same way. In 20 years I expect that 3D printers will be ubiquitous and 3D printed models can be manufactured in a few minutes for pennies. Everybody will have a 3D model of their body printed before surgery, so that the surgeon can have an understanding of the anatomy in 3D space before operating. I have started a website, embodi3D.com, to serve as a community where biomedical 3D makers can get together, exchange ideas and files, and work collaboratively to make this future a reality.
Q:
If there is one thing you would like the hardware and software vendors to improve, what would they be?
A:
Hardware needs to be cheaper and easier to use. But, the whole industry is going in this direction and I think it’s just a matter of time.
 The biggest problem with software is difficulty of use and learning curves. It’s really hard to master all the nuances of 3D printing and current software packages require a lot of manual editing to get things just right. Better automated tools are needed, and will come with time.
Q:
Any advice  for the startup companies in the space?
A:
Welcome! Get ready to work hard!
Q:
Any advice  for the newcomers/users in the space?
A:
Don’t underestimate the technical challenges of doing high quality 3D prints with current technology. There is a steep learning curve with software, design, and understanding 3D printing materials and methods. I have planned a series of tutorials which I will publish on my website, embodi3D.com, to help new makers overcome these problems, so they won’t have to spend years of trial and error as I have. I encourage biomedical makers to post questions to our forums and participate in the discussion. Together, we can radically change the biomedical sciences through 3D printing!

hchen23

Neuroradiologist by trade, enthusiast for big data, digital marketing, 3D printing in healthcare

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