In China, a 38-year-old man was suffering from chronic headaches and ended up being diagnosed with a meningioma saddle nodule, a brain tumor that surrounded a part of his central nervous system. In most cases, this type of tumor is often benign and asymptomatic, meaning the person never experiences symptoms. However, this case was especially complicated because the tumor was located very close to the the base of the patient's skull and surrounded his carotid artery and optic nerve. Surgery was the only option.

Tumor shaded in blue. Source:

Because this type of tumor has a high incidence of recurring if not fully removed, doctors developed a method to create a 3-D printable model using 3-D modeling software and CT scans. This approach eliminates the chances of encountering "blind corners" during surgery that can occur when only relying on CT scans. Using 3-D printed models allowed the doctors to map out the surgery more precisely than ever before, enabling a speedier recovery time, as well as lowering the risk of damaging surrounding tissues.

Doctors 3-D printed the patient's skull, the tumor, and the surrounding arteries, in exact proportion, and in differing materials to mimic what the surgeons would "feel" during the real surgery. Thankfully, the surgery turned out to be a success and the man was walking again after two days of recovery.

Skull Tumor Model

Multi-material 3-D printing mimicked what the doctors would encounter during real surgery. Source:

A world of possibilities
Multi-material 3-D printing has been around since 2007, when Stratasys' (NASDAQ:SSYS) Objet released the Objet500 Connex 3-D printer, but it wasn't until recently that the applications for multi-material 3-D printing have expanded beyond traditional prototyping.

Last month, an academic team unrelated to the surgery mentioned above from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, created an ultra-realistic multi-material 3-D printed brain model for aspiring surgeons to practice with. The model was printed on the Objet500 Connex and mimics the consistency of skin, bone, membranes, and even patient-specific tumors. Each model currently costs $600 to produce and can be used one time, allowing students and doctors to rehearse complicated surgeries. The video below shows a model brain being "operated" on.

Source: New Scientist

Not just for manufacturing
It's not every day that a technology like 3-D printing comes along and offers the potential to revolutionize not only how the world makes things, but also how we approach solving old problems in new ways. For this reason, 3-D printing will likely become an increasingly important technology in many facets of our lives in ways we cannot fully imagine. Today, 3-D printing is helping brain surgeons get better, improving the quality of health care, and saving lives along the way. Tomorrow, there's an exciting world of new and unknown possibilities.

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Fool contributor Steve Heller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.