British scientists have created a 3D-printed replica of a cancerous human liver which doctors can use to practise operations. 

The prototype organ is made of a combination of synthetic gels and fibres and is the first of its kind.

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University used scans and images of an anonymised patient’s organ and were able to replicate it by using various layers and different materials. 

"Surgeons currently assess and plan surgery using scan data like ultrasound, CT [Computed Tomography] or MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging]," Mr Richard Arm, a PhD candidate in the School of Art & Design at the university and member of the Advanced Textiles Research Group (ATRG) who designed the liver, told The Telegraph.

"There’s a few examples of researchers using animal organs from butcher’s offal to implant artificial tumours to practise surgical techniques, but these aren’t realistic because animals have different anatomy and cannot replicate specific human cases."

He says some 3D-printed organs have been made previously, mainly hearts, but there has never before been a way to make true analogues.

The organ has realistic blood vessels that can be filled with synthetic blood

Credit: Nottingham Trent University

Mr Arm constructed the ingenious item with scan data and medical expertise provided by Dr Christopher Clarke, consultant radiologist, at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

Dr Clarke said: "This technology could give surgeons increased confidence in each procedure they undertake, by allowing them to better understand an individual patient’s anatomy and potentially reduce the risks to patients during what can be incredibly difficult, life-saving surgery."

"The blood vessels, tissue and concealed tumour are all made of different materials, and it responds to an operation in the same way as a real organ does. For example, when sliced open with a scalpel, it will "bleed". 

The blood, like the rest of the organ, is not real, and this makes storage of the 3D printed version simple. It does not degrade over time, poses no biohazard hazard, does not need to be refrigerated, and can be used for educational purposes in a theatre, lecture hall, or a classroom. 

"Because the synthetic organs we made have realistic blood vessels that can be filled with synthetic blood, it allows the surgeon to learn more about specific patient cases prior to the real operation and even conduct a mock tumour removal to rehearse the procedure," Mr Arm told The Telegraph. "Of course, this also creates new opportunities for trainees to learn about surgical interventions without risk, too, which has also never been offered before."

He said that every patient is unique and has organs of different shapes, sizes and constructs, so there can be many hidden complications that doctors have to deal with.

He added: "But this research shows how existing scan data and modern 3D-print processing methods can dramatically improve the preparation available before the first incision is even made.

"It could give surgeons increased confidence and may provide patients with improved outcomes, such as the increased retention of healthy tissue, reduced risk of infections and swifter recovery times."