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By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Have you ever heard of 3D printing? This is a process in which a three-dimensional solid object is made from a digital model under the control of a computer. This technology is used in many industries, including architecture, fashion, aerospace engineering, and medicine. Dr. Stephen Joslyn, a veterinarian radiologist at the University of Illinois Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains the application of three-dimensional printing (or "Rapid Prototyping") in veterinary medicine.

With a three-dimensional printer, a physical object is created layer by layer, as a liquid ultraviolet resin and an ultraviolet laser build each layer. The laser etches out the pattern and also cures and solidifies the layer. At the end of this process, a physical object is created.

This modality can be used to print a model of an animal's bones from a computed tomography (CT) scan. Joslyn uses the images from a CT scan and will isolate the bone in the image away from the soft tissue structures.

Once he has a clear picture of the desired structure, in this case a bone, the image is sent to a printing lab. The lab makes the structure using a 3D printer and sends the printed bone to the veterinarian. In addition to printing bones, 3D printing can be used to reconstruct blood vessels as well as muscles and other organs.

What are the advantages of using this technology in veterinary medicine?

"3D printing is used so surgeons can practice a surgery before performing it on a live patient," explains Joslyn. "Multiple copies of the tissue can be printed. In addition to surgical planning and visualization, owner education and veterinary education benefit greatly from the use of three-dimensional printed objects."

Additionally, because 3D printing has become less expensive since it was introduced in the 1980s, it is also a cost-effective means of making models.

Technological advances are happening every day, and the implications 3D printing could have on the medical and veterinary field in the future are limitless.

"In 10 years I think every specialist hospital will have a 3D printer with the capability to print many things such as customized patient-specific implants. Veterinarians in orthopedics will be using this technology all of the time," suggests Joslyn.

Joslyn and his lab are experimenting with printing in different types of materials to see which best represents an animal's bone. He is also looking at different CT settings that may make it easier to optimize the images before they are sent to be printed.

For more information about 3D printing, speak with a veterinary radiologist or surgeon familiar with this technology.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy,

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