Currently, most 3D-printed organ models are made using hard plastics or rubbers. This limits their application for accurate prediction and replication of the organ’s physical behavior during surgery. There are significant differences in the way these organs look and feel compared to their biological counterparts. They can be too hard to cut or suture, and they also lack an ability to provide quantitative feedback.

Soft sensors can be attached to the organ models to give surgeons real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue. (McAlpine Research Group)

Researchers have 3D-printed lifelike artificial organ models that mimic the exact anatomical structure, mechanical properties, and look and feel of real organs. These patient-specific organ models that include integrated soft sensors can be used for practice surgeries to improve surgical outcomes in thousands of patients worldwide.

In this study, MRI scans and tissue samples were taken from three patients’ prostates. The tissue was tested, and customized silicone-based inks were developed that can be “tuned” to precisely match the mechanical properties of each patient’s prostate tissue. These unique inks were used in a custom-built 3D printer. The researchers then attached soft, 3D-printed sensors to the organ models, and observed the reaction of the model prostates during compression tests and the application of various surgical tools.

The sensors could provide surgeons with real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue. In the future, researchers hope to use this new method to 3D-print lifelike models of more complicated organs, using multiple inks. For instance, if the organ has a tumor or deformity, the surgeons would be able to see that in a patient-specific model, and test various strategies for removing tumors or correcting complications. They also hope to someday explore applications beyond surgical practice, including creating “bionic organs” for transplants.

For more information, contact Rhonda Zurn, College of Science and Engineering, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 612-626-7959.


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This article first appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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