Biomedical Engineering – Not Just Science Fiction

By Chelsea Reighard, University of Michigan, USA

I remember my first exposure to bioengineering vividly. My love for science started in primary school, when I received a gift subscription to weekly science magazine. One Saturday afternoon I sprawled out on my parents’ living room carpet to read an issue about ‘wacky inventions’. I could not believe my eyes when I turned the page to find a mouse with an ear on his back—a human shaped ear!

While many of these tissue engineering and 3D printing applications seem to be the stuff of science fiction; the innovative medical devices and education approaches are real. I am fortunate to be spending this academic year researching biomedical solutions to clinical problems under the mentorship of Dr David Zopf.

Medical Device Innovation 

Scott Hollister, David Zopf & Colleen Flanagan displaying ear and nose scaffolds from their lab

In Dr Zopf’s lab, a partnership between the Paediatric Otolaryngology and Biomedical Engineering Departments creates a perfect environment for innovation and translational research. Many of the projects start with a problem that the Paediatric Otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat surgeons) encounter in their daily practice. Brainstorming sessions remain a critical step in developing prototypes for new medical device innovations with current scientific literature and standards of practice informing our approach. Computer-aided design software helps us produce models of the new devices, and medical imaging techniques, such as CT scanning, allow us to make patient-specific devices. Our 3D printers use a special type of plastic to create moulds for the prototypes, which are then poured with medical grade silicone to make the final product.

One of the most recent innovations to be developed out of this partnership is a 3D-printed tracheal splint to help save the lives of children who have tracheomalacia (an abnormally developed windpipe). Another project, currently in clinical trials, studies the creation of patient-specific CPAP masks to treat children with facial deformities and sleep apnoea  (a medical condition that is marked by pauses in breathing when sleeping).

A New Approach to Medical Education

ears - DSC_0095
David Zopf using a 3D printed rib model for teaching difficult ear reconstruction to resident surgeon Ashley Bauer

As a former secondary science teacher turned medical student, I enjoy developing new approaches to medical education. Many surgeons-in-training learn techniques on live patients, which can lead to longer surgeries and more potential surgical errors. If we can develop realistic models of surgical problems, then these trainees can learn and perfect their technique in a low-stakes environment. Recently, several of our devices were used in a ‘surgical boot camp’ for first year Otolaryngology residents at our Simulation Center.

Additionally, 3D-printed education applications can extend to attending physicians, who can print complicated tumors and practice possible surgical approaches before the actual surgery and to paediatric patients, who can learn about their tumor. Several of our patients have been able to symbolically beat their cancer by smashing a 3D-printed model of their tumor.


The August issue of The Biochemist explores exciting advances in tissue engineering and 3D printing techniques. While many of these innovations still seem like they came straight out of a science fiction novel, they are in the process of revolutionizing the way physicians care for their patients.

Chelsea Reighard MSEd is a Pre-Doctoral NIH T32 Grant Trainee and a 4th year medical student at the University of Michigan working with David A. Zopf MD, MS an Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery and an Affiliate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, USA.



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