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Scientists use 3D printing to make replica organs for enhanced radiotherapy

Researchers have used 3D printing to produce replica models of tumours and organs of patients with cancer, to help calculate precisely how much radiation has been delivered to the cancer.

Preliminary studies show the models can accurately replicate the shape of a patient’s tumour and the surrounding organs – and could mimic the exact position of the tumour within the patient’s body.

Initial tests at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust found the models allowed the dose of radiation a patient has received to be calculated more accurately – allowing subsequent doses to be adjusted accordingly.

Researchers were aiming to improve molecular radiotherapy – in which doctors give a patient a radioactive drug designed to target a tumour, and aim for a dose high enough to kill cancer cells but not so high that it damages healthy tissue.

The work was funded by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), with additional support from the ICR’s PhD programme.

The replica tumours and organs – known as ‘phantoms’ – were filled with the same radioactive liquid administered to patients and monitored to mimic the likely effects of radiotherapy in that individual patient.

The phantoms ­– made from a type of plastic and printed by researchers from the Joint Department of Physics at the ICR and The Royal Marsden – are based on scans taken during patient treatment.

The researchers originally produced hand-made individual models of a tumour before turning to 3D printing technology. The researchers, who are physicists, work in molecular radiotherapy – a treatment that is used for thyroid cancer, adult neuroendocrine tumours, childhood neuroblastoma and bone metastases from prostate cancer.

If the results are confirmed in larger studies, 3D printing could be used to significantly improve the accuracy of dosing during molecular radiotherapy.

Study co-leader Dr Jonathan Gear, Clinical Scientist in the Joint Department of Physics at The Institute of Cancer Research, London and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The big challenge we faced was to produce a model that was both anatomically accurate and allowed us to monitor the dose of radiation it received. We found that the printed replicas could give us information we couldn’t get from 2D scans – you will always get more information from a 3D model than a flat image.

“Our research is aiming to find new ways to fine-tune the amounts of radiation given to patients as part of their treatment. There’s no reason why in the future, treatment planning can’t incorporate 3D printing technology to help improve radiation dosing for patients.”

Dr Glenn Flux, Head of Radioisotope Physics at the Joint Department of Physics at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We’ve seen reports on how 3D printing is being used for prosthetics and to inform surgery, and this research shows it has the potential to improve cancer treatment too – by helping us to perform complex radiotherapy calculations more accurately. We’re really excited by this technology and the potential it has for personalising cancer treatment with highly targeted radiation.”

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