Scientists at MIT and Harvard created a new 3D printing technology that uses dithered bitmaps to improve the quality and lower the cost of taking medical images from the computer screen to three dimensions.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and a few years ago Steven Keating, then a graduate student at MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, had a rather urgent problem: a baseball-sized tumor in his brain. The tumor was successfully removed through awake brain surgery in 2014, and in the process Keating and a group of collaborators at MIT, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and elsewhere, created a new 3D printing technology for medical models that is faster, more accurate, and cheaper than existing methods. Their research was just published in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing and in Science Advances (and we’ve got some really neat photos from the publications below).
Mediated Matter is a research group that works on tools, technologies, and structures inspired by biology; it’s led by Neri Oxman, the prolific architect and designer who pioneered the field of material ecology (download). So Keating was well-positioned to explore his predicament in three dimensions, which he by attempting to 3D-print his CT and MRI scans. What he found was that the relationship between these medical images and the 3D printing technology wasn’t seamless: It required a lot of manual labor and wasn’t always accurate. Together with colleagues at MIT and Wyss, Keating created a new way to print using a file type called “dithered bitmaps,” in which pixels in a grayscale image are converted to either black or white. The depth of color is achieved by having a higher or lower concentration of black pixels, and because there are now only two colors the image can be printed easily and quickly using two different materials.
The goal of creating these detailed 3D models of images is to improve medical research and diagnostics. Instead of looking at an image on a screen, doctors and patients would look at an actual 3D model; researchers can even print using materials of different properties to get a better idea of the mechanical properties of the biological sample in question. “I imagine that sometime within the next five years, the day could come when any patient that goes into a doctor’s office for a routine or non-routine CT or MRI scan will be able to get a 3D-printed model of their patient-specific data within a few days,” said James Weaver, one of the authors of the study, in a press release issued by the Wyss Institute.
In the meantime, Keating continues to monitor his own health by printing his MRI scans — and as the images above demonstrate, the new method is also applicable to making physical instantiations from imaging data of objects beyond human anatomy.
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