3D Printing Brings Ideas to Life at Barrow Innovation Center

In February 2016, the Barrow Innovation Center launched with its first successful 3D print: a small box.

“Since then, we’ve gone from a tiny little chunk of plastic to spine models that bend and move like you would expect them to, which are fairly complex,” said Dr. Michael Bohl, a PGY-5 resident with the Barrow Neurosurgery Residency Program who heads the center.

These spine models, which are printed from CT and MRI images of human spines, could supplement or replace expensive and perishable cadavers in educational courses and biomechanics research.

The center is also using 3D printing to create prototypes of new surgical instruments, including a device that will soon be used in operating rooms to help prevent spinal cord injuries during surgery.

“This was a recognized danger during our own surgical procedures,” Dr. Bohl said. “So, that risk was brought to the Innovation Center, and we developed a design that we thought would mitigate that risk and make surgery safer for patients. It’s exciting because we’re starting to move into that next phase of getting our ideas that have made it through our own internal process out into the market and into operating rooms.”

A Pipeline for Ideas

Early on in his residency, Dr. Bohl had ideas for new medical devices but found that the process for developing them was difficult to navigate. That’s when he began to envision a formal program that would serve as a pipeline where ideas could be vetted and, if feasible, developed quickly.

Dr. Michael Bohl, a PGY-5 neurosurgery resident, heads the Barrow Innovation Center.

Dr. Michael Bohl, a PGY-5 neurosurgery resident, heads the Barrow Innovation Center.

“When you cut down that development time, that tends to be when things are the most exciting and when the best ideas come out,” he said. “It’s difficult to continue to innovate the same solution when it takes years to make it through each step of the process. You forget and move onto other things.”

Dr. Bohl’s vision for such a program became a reality when Scottsdale Patent Attorney Steven Lisa, whose father was treated for brain cancer at Barrow, donated a gift of appreciation to the institute.

“My dad has received amazing care,” Lisa told the Barrow Neurological Foundation. “What struck me in particular was the expertise of the neurosurgery residents at Barrow. Their talent is astonishing.”

Also an adjunct law professor at Arizona State University, Lisa helped Dr. Bohl establish a partnership with ASU. The university provides the Innovation Center with engineering assistance for developing the prototypes and legal assistance for obtaining patents. Dr. Bohl said the lab has also partnered with California Polytechnic State University and Texas A&M University.

With the help of biomedical engineering and law students from ASU, it only took about five weeks for the Innovation Center to design, prototype, test, modify, provisionally patent, and present to industry the spinal cord protection device.

“I think that’s one of the best parts of the Innovation Center is that we aren’t slowed by the typical red tape for most university-based incubators,” Dr. Bohl said.

He also credits much of the Innovation Center’s growth to support from neurosurgeons Dr. Peter Nakaji and Dr. Andrew Little.

3D Printing at Core of Innovation Center

With 3D printing becoming more accessible and affordable, Dr. Bohl envisioned the technology being an integral part of the Innovation Center. It is equipped with two printers that can print up to two materials at the same time and another printer that can print up to five.

“One of the hardest things about this process as a neurosurgeon is communicating what it is I’m thinking in my head to a lawyer or an engineer so that we’re both thinking the same thing,” Dr. Bohl said. “If I can show them an actual model of the device or instrument I’m thinking of, it makes the process 100 times easier. Before 3D printing, there really was no way for a non-engineer like me to do that.”

To create a prototype of an instrument, such as the spinal cord protection device, there are a number of software programs that allow Dr. Bohl and his colleagues to build a design from scratch and print it in 3D.

A 3D-printed skull model created in the Barrow Innovation Center

To print models of the head and spine, the team converts data from CT or MRI images into 3D-printable files. The end result is an exact replica of a person’s spine or cranium.

To print models of the head and spine, the team converts data from CT or MRI images into 3D-printable files. The end result is an exact replica of a person’s spine or cranium. Neurosurgeons are already using these patient-specific models in the operating room so that they can see and hold a 3D model of the patient’s anatomy rather than simply look at two-dimensional images on a screen.

Dr. Bohl and his team have been printing partial spines as part of a project he calls the Barrow Biomimetic Spine. The goal is to print an entire spine that biomechanically functions just like a human spine does, which he said would be a huge advantage in surgical education and biomechanics research.

“Everything is dependent on cadavers, which come with a large number of limitations,” he said. “Cost is a big one, limited shelf life is a big one, and there’s also variability between specimens in terms of tissue and bone quality. Some specimens will have pathology in them, but most won’t. With a 3D-printed spine, you can print whatever pathology you want into your print. So, you can very much customize the spine to whatever it is you’re testing.”

The material cost of one of the short-segment spine models is less than $5, and it can be used over and over again. They are usually made of polylactic acid (PLA) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which are the two main plastics used to simulate bone. The center also has some experimental filaments that print hard like PLA or ABS until they are soaked in water, causing the hard part to dissolve and leaving behind a soft material that has been promising for replicating human soft tissue.

Dr. Bohl said that in addition to surgical education, there is a big opportunity for 3D printing to be used in patient education.

“We could use patient-specific anatomy to create 3D prints that are then used in clinics and office visits to show patients what normal anatomy looks like, what their anatomy looks like, and what it is you’re going to be doing in surgery to help them,” he explained.

Dr. Bohl said the Barrow Innovation Center will probably have a fourth 3D printer in the near future and engineering and legal fellows in the fall.

In the News


About Barrow Neurological Institute
Since our doors opened as a regional specialty center in 1962, we have grown into one of the premier destinations in the world for neurology and neurosurgery. Our experienced, highly skilled, and comprehensive team of neurological specialists can provide you with a complete spectrum of care–from diagnosis through outpatient neurorehabilitation–under one roof. Barrow Neurological Institute: Discover. Educate. Heal.