3D printed anatomical (bio)models in spine surgery: clinical benefits and value to health care providers

William C. H. Parr, Joshua L. Burnard, Peter John Wilson, Ralph J. Mobbs


The applications of three-dimensional printing (3DP) for clinical purposes have grown rapidly over the past decade. Recent advances include the fabrication of patient specific instrumentation, such as drill and cutting guides, patient specific/custom long term implants and 3DP of cellular scaffolds. Spine surgery in particular has seen enthusiastic early adoption of these applications. 3DP as a manufacturing method can be used to mass produce objects of the same design, but can also be used as a cost-effective method for manufacturing unique one-off objects, such as patient specific models and devices. Perhaps the first, and currently most widespread, application of 3DP for producing patient specific devices is the production of patient specific anatomical models, often termed biomodels. The present manuscript focuses on the current state of the art in anatomical (bio)models as used in spinal clinical practice. The biomodels shown and discussed include: translucent and coloured models to aid in identification of extent and margins of pathologies such as bone tumours; dynamic models for implant trial implantation and pre-operative sizing; models that can be disassembled to simulate surgical resection of diseased tissue and subsequent reconstruction. Biomodels can reduce risk to the patient by decreasing surgery time, reducing the probability of the surgical team encountering unexpected anatomy or relative positioning of structures and/or devices, and better pre-operative planning of the surgical workflow including ordered preparation of the necessary instrumentation for multi-step and revision procedures. Conversely, risks can be increased if biomodels are not accurate representations of the anatomy, which can occur if MRI/CT scan data is simply converted into 3DP format without interpretation of what the scan represents in terms of patient anatomy. A review and analysis of the cost-benefits of biomodels shows that biomodels can potentially reduce cost to health care providers if operating room time is reduced by 14 minutes or more.