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2019 Impact Awards

Interdisciplinary 3D Printing Project Has Real-World Impact

At Louisiana State University, an undergraduate student used 3D printing and a lot of ingenuity to create the first personalized human model for cancer research.

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Category: Education Futurists

Institution: Louisiana State University

Project: Project Phantom

Project lead: Meagan Moore, undergraduate research scholar

Tech lineup: Autodesk, BigRep, Human Solutions, KISSlicer, Rhinoceros, Simplify3D

Meagan Moore

In addition to solving a significant problem in radiation therapy, undergraduate research scholar Meagan Moore utilized data from her research with Project Phantom to create science-based art.

Most universities have dipped their toes into the 3D printing and makerspace waters, encouraging student innovators to develop prototypes of design ideas. But it is still uncommon for students, especially undergraduates, to get involved in the design of products that will have a significant impact in the real world.

That is why the story of Louisiana State University undergraduate research scholar Meagan Moore stands out and has been recognized with a Campus Technology Impact Award. Working in the lab of Prof. Wayne Newhauser, the Dr. Charles M. Smith Chair of Medical Physics, Moore 3D printed what the lab describes as the first personalized human model for testing radiation therapy. Her effort is an example of using fairly accessible technologies to build and potentially replace something used in the clinic to personalize patient cancer treatments.

The interdisciplinary collaboration required to solve the engineering, design, 3D printing, and medical testing challenges involved in the project were a great learning experience for Moore. "For me, hearing the word no is just a way to find another way to yes," she said, "and sometimes, those tend to take you to projects and concepts that you never would have interacted with otherwise. I have a background in art and science, and I am doing a degree in engineering, and this project has allowed me to use every bit of my background."

Here is the problem Newhauser's lab set out to solve: In radiation therapy, mannikins called "phantoms" are used as surrogates for human tissue to test radiation exposure, and to figure out the best angle to distribute a dose. However, anthropomorphic phantoms for radiation dosimetry are expensive (around $40,000), are available in only a few standard sizes, and are limited by geometric design. Personalized anthropomorphic phantoms could be useful for quality assurance in the clinic when treating a patient with non-standard anatomy such as medical implants, amputations or obesity. People of all body types get cancer, but no personalized full body phantoms exist.

Previous students of Newhauser's had begun work on 3D printing of human anatomy to address this radiotherapy issue. "Meagan's big contribution has been to figure out how to print a life-sized, personalized replica of an actual person we scanned using 3D printing technologies," Newhauser explained. "There was a lot of work and ingenuity in practical engineering aspects to make this thing work," he noted. They had to be able to move it, so it couldn't be made of solid plastic or it would be too heavy. It had to be a shell they could fill with water, so it had to be water-tight, but they need to have measurement instruments inside to characterize the radiation beams. "Meagan powered through challenge after challenge on the technical engineering side," he said.  

Newhauser said Moore's skill set has allowed her to function in a team environment and reach out to people she doesn't know and ask for help. "Her combination of tenacity and interpersonal skills has allowed her to address things like water-tightness, big printers that are broken, and working with a team and vendors to get things fixed," he said. "Sometimes that takes a lot of diplomacy." For instance, selecting printing materials that are human-tissue substitutes has been a challenge. "She has rolled up her sleeves and gotten into the materials science aspects when needed. This project has allowed her to develop a nice combination of scientific ability, engineering ability, and the ability to work well in a team and motivate others to collaborate."

Just transporting the phantom to Seattle where it would be tested proved a challenge. "I spent a weekend dissecting part of a transport coffin that someone had gotten from a friend who is a mortician," Moore recalled. "We built a coffin to transport the model across the country securely, because we only had a certain window of time to make sure it got there in one piece."

Moore even tells a story about improvising with chewing gum: After flying from Baton Rouge to Seattle to meet with oncology specialists and use their radiation therapy testing equipment, she noticed in a CT image that the water level in the model was a little low. She found a small hole in the crotch area.

"We didn't have anything on hand that would cure fast enough because it was already full of a significant amount of water, and we wanted to get into testing right away. I turned and asked, 'Does anyone have any kind of food or gum that will plug the hole?' One guy had some Watermelon-flavored Trident gum, so everyone chewed a piece for 30 seconds; we put the pieces all together and put it right on the hole in the crotch, and it held."

LSU administrators appreciate this effort in part because it highlights the potential of interdisciplinary collaboration. "I am from Engineering, and this started with Medical Physics, but the project goes beyond those," Moore said. "We worked with Art & Design for some of the initial scanning, and the Textile Department for body scans, and then we moved into Architecture for their printer." In addition, the lab has partnered with University of Washington Medical School, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and Oregon Health & Science University.

The 3D scanning was done on a Human Solutions scanner. Software used for 3D scanning and slicing included Fusion 360 and Netfabb from Autodesk, KISSlicer, Rhino and Simplify3D. The 3D printing was done on a BigRep printer. Printing took 136 hours collectively for the model's four parts.

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Moore said the project may have opened the door to other types of collaboration on the LSU campus. "When I started going to different groups to talk to them about projects, I noticed a lot of students would say, 'Wait, I didn't know we had that piece of equipment on campus. I didn't know you could just pay a fee and go use a certain piece of equipment.' So it has opened up a dialog between students and faculty about what possibilities we have for creating projects where you work on the same bench as someone who is in a completely different discipline than you," she explained. "We are also looking to do an event in January where we have people from different disciplines in the sciences come together with the art department and architecture to discuss different types of 3D printing and modeling. We can get that dialog going by throwing people from different disciplines together to talk about common interests of modeling from computer to actual structures."

It is still somewhat unusual for an undergraduate to play such a key role on a project like this, but Newhauser said it is becoming more common. "We like to create opportunities for undergraduates, and Meagan is a good example of how far you can run with a project. At LSU, the opportunities are there. They are not universal; you have to seek them out. But they are much more common today than they were a generation ago."

Although Moore's pilot was successful, more testing will be done in Newhauser's lab and in clinical settings. "This is now a very promising research tool," he said. "We have just started to use it for research projects in the clinic and we have some more research and development to do before it will be commonly used in the clinic, but we can see it coming. It is just a matter of time."

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