By Tracy Leigh Hazzard and Tom Hazzard
3DHEALS2017: UCSF 3D Printing Library
Today, we’ve got a really interesting interview with someone in the medical side of 3D printing, someone who’s trying to bring the world of 3D printing together with the world of medicine, by the name of Jenny Chen of 3DHeals. We’re not talking about footwear this time or orthotics, we’re talking about actual healing of the human body, healthcare 3D printing. In healthcare 3D printing, what we’re talking about is spurring conversations. Jenny has a background as a neuroradiologist, which is really interesting. I want to know about the scans that they do because I’ve heard you can use medical scans and 3D print them. We’ve of some listeners who had actually had their own scan of whatever body part they happen to break or do whatever with. I think that’s a really interesting subject. I think it goes beyond that.
When we watch stuff like Grey’s Anatomy and things like that and you see these. We go, “That 3D printer did not print that fast.” What’s the reality of it? There’s a newer show called Pure Genius. It’s supposed to be like an advanced medical hospital in LA. It stars Dermot Mulroney among other actors. They feature or they use 3D printing as a part of their story and they show off certain machines, use them as props. We have seen many different 3D printers used in the show. Robo 3D printers have been in it and Form 1+. But it’s certainly not the reality I think of where 3D printing is involved in medicine today. Not that it isn’t involved, it’s absolutely involved.
Jenny Chen of 3DHeals is the founder and CEO of the company. She founded it out of her own struggle with trying to get enough information about what was going on in 3D printing and emerging technologies. She is also an adjunct clinical faculty in the radiology department at Stanford Healthcare. She’s got a global conference going on as well which is coming up in April. I think this is such an interesting subject and an interesting take on 3D print, medical. We’ve done a lot of episodes on those at various times and we’re always talking about the tech side of it. This is really coming from doctor-people side of it. I’m just so fascinated by it. Let’s go to the interview.
Listen to the podcast here.
Medical 3D Printing with Jenny Chen of 3DHeals
Jenny, thank you so much for joining us today.
I’m happy to be here. Thanks for inviting.
We get a lot of topics about medical and 3D printing. I like your take on it that is really a more global discussion on healthcare. Explain to us how you started 3DHeals and how you got into the combination of medical applications of 3D printing?
’m actually still a practicing radiologist. Three years ago, I started to be interested in creating medical models for our clinicians who does surgeries. Some of these surgeries would benefit from these 3D printed models because they’re very complex. I tried to search out for ways to create these 3D prints but it became a very challenging project. There weren’t any resources. There wasn’t any support group. The software are very complicated to use and very expensive. On one hand, I really want to use this amazing technology to help our surgeons and our patients. On the other hand, absolutely no resource. I was just one radiologist who wants to do some work for our community.
You mean it wasn’t as easy as Grey’s Anatomy makes it seem?
I hope it is. I think the way our media has portrayed the amazing technology, there is a little disconnect between what really is happening in reality and what we want to happen. There’s a beautiful picture in front of us, an amazing future, which I still see that can happen anytime. But there is a bit of a struggle and also quite a few challenges. We really want to get there. That’s where I was in terms of trying to create these surgical models. They look beautiful from other people’s picture and I want to create them too. When people tell you how these 3D printing objects were made, they’d be like, “Yes, they’re just software I play around with and then you print it out and this is how I did it.” There wasn’t much in between of the details how to make that actually happen and what are the challenges.
There’s a lot of work that happens in the middle there. That’s what we found from going from scan to something. You’re saying that going from some kind of x-ray or some kind of program that you have, there’s actually a lot of manual labor that has to happen before it outputs properly.
Absolutely. I’m just a doctor. I don’t know anything about CAD programs. I’m not an engineering-minded person. I didn’t have undergrad degree in that field. People didn’t tell us how complex the software can be. The lingos that they use in the software industry are also geared towards engineers, not necessary for a healthcare provider. There are a lot of barriers for people like me who want to do innovative work in healthcare and have the ability to. Just no resource to really help me to get there.
You’re building a global conference that’s coming up at the UC San Francisco Mission Bay Campus. What is the focus of that going to be? Is that your way of trying to bring all those parties together?
Absolutely. That’s my priority. In a way, it’s innovation to me is a collaborative work. A lot of doctors and healthcare providers want to solve problems they encounter during their daily practices but have no solutions. They really need to talk to engineers, companies, startups, and designers to figure out those solutions faster. On the other hand, people who are outside of healthcare really want to help or some companies really want to move to a different vertical and yet, they have no way to know which application is the best to go into.
In a way, I want to unlock the myth of 3D printing for the healthcare providers so they can be innovators themselves and put power into their hands, to empower them with this knowledge about 3D printing so that they can think of new ways of taking care of their patients. On the other hand, I also want to unlock the myth of healthcare to that they can also understand this industry more. It’s not as scary as it seems. FDA is not as scary as it seems. You just have to know how to get there. You have to understand. It is a complex path but it’s not impossible.
Wow. If I understand you correctly, while there was no resource for you when you started looking at this three or more years ago, you’re now trying to create the resource through 3DHeals, is that correct?
That is correct. In fact, in the past two years, we have been doing that. We have created smaller communities, smaller conferences focusing on more specific subjects, like the legal concerns in 3D printing or just focusing on orthopedics. In these past two years, we have been creating this community. Now, actually along with the growth of the healthcare interest in 3D printing along in the past three or four years, we have actually a much larger momentum now than three to four years ago.
That’s great. I’m so glad to hear that. I think that almost exactly mirrors the reason we started the podcast on a slightly different realm. We thought it sounded so good but it was actually a lot harder than we anticipated. You mentioned some of the challenges. You talked about the CAD part of it. What are some of the other challenges that are disconnect between the future vision of what 3D printing and technology can do for healthcare between its actual operation and how it works today?
The single most important challenge that people need to realize is that there is a lack of conversation between different disciplines.
I have so many answers for it because there are so many challenges from all directions. I think the single most important challenge that people need to realize is that there is a lack of conversation between different disciplines. There’s a lack of understanding what healthcare really needs from the industry side. They create products that may seem to be scalable and amazing from the tech world, but then the product actually is not as useful per se for healthcare providers. On other hand, the healthcare people doesn’t even know a whole lot about these emerging technologies, including AI and 3D printing, to a degree that they can actually feel that they can use this technology for real in their daily life. That disconnect is huge. That’s why we want to create this platform for people to start to have this kind of conversation to accelerate innovations in the future, to make things actually from fantasies to reality.
Wow. That mirrors a lot of what we’ve been talking about lately, about bringing back in the people first focus. That’s what you’re saying here, this idea that whether it’s a business-to-business or a business-to-consumer, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still all people. You have to have that conversation between the two sides in order to make that work and to make applied technology be more useful.
Jenny, on more of the practical side of things, as a radiologist, I would imagine you deal with things like CT scans and things like that among other scanning technologies. Can the data from those scans, is that actually a 3D model that you could use to 3D print part of the human anatomy?
Absolutely. Basically what they use is medical images that we obtain from routine diagnostic process. Actually, a huge amount of medical data is not in the form of text but also images. Personalizing is not tapped into. People can really utilize these images even better. 3D printing is definitely one of the main manifestations of that. In addition to 3D printing, just remember these are images that are 3-dimensional so they can be also translated into other information, like VR and AR language. Also, it serves as a complimentary technology to 3D printing. I’m focusing on the simulation component of 3D printing right now. When I’m talking about those right now, it’s just about how surgeons use it.
Just imagine this 3-dimensional information can also be translated into other kind of 3D printed products. Externally, you can have braces for treatment or for rehab. Internally, you can create patient-specific implants. Hip implant is not just going to be a number of size anymore, it’s not going be a size medium, size small. It’s going to be your size, your shape, your angle. In addition, your bone structure, because they can now go down to microstructure to design the biomechanical property of these implants too.
These medical images are quite valuable. We have a few challenges about the images that we have. One is, these images are not obtained based on any standard. Because when MRI and CT were invented first, they did not have 3D printing in mind. The protocols, the way we’re obtaining images are not started. Also, people are moving around in the scans, so that creates a lot of artifact. If they have like metal objects in their body, that creates an artifact. We have a lot of imagingacquisition challenge as well to create data for 3D printing.
We have a few challenges about the images that we have. One is, these images are not obtained based on any standard.
All these are challenges that we need to overcome to create a database that actually will be more useful and accurate for 3D printing. That’s a standard that a lot of people now are tackling, which is a good thing to do. Because at this point, when we’re obtaining medical images, we need to follow certain standards, so that in the future if the patient wants to have a 3D printed model for specific reasons, they can use this image which they already paid for, the hospital already paid for. There’s a lot of value to that.
I bet there is. Standards, I think that’s such an important aspect of this. I think, really what you were talking about before, the communication gap is really critical to close that gap, so that everybody can work and not waste time or not leave patients out of the ability to use those scans in all these different ways in the future. That’s fantastic. I’m glad you’re doing that.
I’m excited about it.
I was really interested that you were talking about VR and AR, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and thinking that that is a way also for a surgeon to practice whatever they might be doing in their procedures and things like that. I’ve seen some of that going on as I’ve been covering some of those VR and AR conferences across the country lately. AI is one you mentioned, and I think that’s a really interesting idea. Doctors are really busy, but if you can set your AI and not just thinking about it being like a robot but AI, like a procedure on a computer, a robot that’s looking out there for you, a bot in that case, looking for the right research materials, the right data, all of that. That’s going to be extremely powerful.
What you’re talking about all of these objects, VR, AR, 3D printing and AI, they’re all basically extensions of computer science. All these things are possible because computer science exists. The consequence of that is these emerging technologies are likely to utilize each other to leveraging the benefits of each other’s strengths. That basically comes down to tools, they’re power tools that you can use to make some things happen. Can 3D printing utilize VR and AR environments to make simulating better for a surgery? Sure, it can be.
On the other hand, VR and AR also has its limitations in certain areas that 3D printing can complement. At the end of day, it’s all human-computer interaction and it’s all part of computer science. Now, in terms of AI, that’s another really powerful tool. I think a lot of people are really interested in this subject right now. It hasn’t been used much and people are just exploring how it can be used, what are the truly useful applications of AI. In 3D printing, one of the subjects we’ve been talking about, I’m still thinking about this subject, is how to segment the anatomy better using AI’s assist or machine learning. I think a couple of companies are already starting to actually focus on this problem. I’m really looking forward to see what their solutions are. There are definitely other applications with AI in 3D printing, which I’m still exploring. I don’t want to talk too much about it because I’m not an expert in AI right now.
I think this is really an interesting find. If someone wanted to get involved in that global conference with you, how do they do that?
It’s pretty easy. We have a website and certainly I can share that with you. We also have official website which is basically 3D-Heals.com. The conference information is also there. There’s an application form, just submit the form and say, “I’m interested in getting in touch with you guys.” We’ll be in touch.
Great. Out of your conference, for it to be a success, what is it that, besides furthering a conversation, is there some big goal that you hope to achieve through that? Besides just spurring conversation. What do you think would be a successful outcome of that conference?
That is actually a pretty big challenge, first of all. We want to continue to educate people from more basic knowledge, just to allow people to even touch a 3D printer and have more basic conversations or learning experience from our side. We hope to host more workshops, so people can actually have hands-on experience with 3D printing in healthcare. Another hope is we want to provide a platform for startups in the space to have a stage to display their innovations. Because right now, I feel like there are a lot of guerilla-type of startups out there that are really in the space but they don’t really have a home to display their ideas, reach out to communities, maybe finding healthcare providers to provide some advice. That’s where we are right now.
Wonderful. Thank you so much, Jenny. We really appreciate the work that you’re doing here. We look forward to seeing more from the outcome. Maybe you can come back in and touch-base with us about how it went at the conference.
Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me.
Medical 3D Printing with Jenny Chen of 3DHeals – Final Thoughts
3D printing could be doing so much more for healing real people if there is a greater connection, if they close that communication gap between 3D printing and the medical community.
I think that Jenny makes a really good point that 3D printing could be doing so much more for healing real people if there is a greater connection, if they close that communication gap between 3D printing and the medical community. I think that’s a really good example of what she’s talking about, that communication or exposure for startups. That would be a really interesting idea of a hospital or a healthcare facility invested in giving a startup some space. Give them some office space and let them hang around and go on tour with doctors and see what’s going on, and discover how it really works and how they can make that better. I think we’re at a situation at which the applied technology that we need to go right now requires a lot of diverse conversation and a lot of collaboration. I think Jenny is right on about that.
This isn’t going to help necessarily to close the gap, but I’m inspired just as someone who’s involved in 3D printing to go see if any of my scans are 3-dimensional. I’ve had a lot of scans done of my eyes in particular. I want to see if I can get 3D information out of those scans and see what I could do with it. I’m going to experiment with that, just from a personal interest point of view.
I had a thought in my head as we we’re interviewing Jenny, she talked about some of the legal challenges, and there may be legal challenges with all the HIPA laws and the privacy laws. I don’t know how that extends to your medical scans, but I know that your medical scans are your property. I think as long as you’ve paid for them or maybe even if you haven’t. I thought it was really funny. In my mind I was thinking, “All right, I’ve copyrighted that. That’s my organ in that scan.” There is this question, is your DNA copyrightable? It certainly is unique. You’re not supposed to be cloning people yet. But I’m sure that people have tried and it will happen someday. There must be some original rights to that.
In all seriousness, the realities of scanning different body parts, I think that she’s right. The scanning technology has been far more advanced in the medical field than it has in other industries. Certainly the desktop 3D printing world have some of these desktop scanners is nowhere near, I’m sure, as fine detail as scans that are done in the medical field. I think it would be fascinating to get a hold of some medical scans and see what you can do with them. The quality must be amazing.
I think what she’s pointing out is that the languages aren’t compatible right now, so it’s not even just the file format languages that aren’t compatible between an MRI machine and what you need to do to 3D print it in an STL or whatever it is that you need in the culmination of the translation of the two. You also have this lingo she mentioned about. It’s engineering lingo on CAD and not medical lingo. You have this problem. We have been saying this across the board, the problem with 3D printing is it’s not consumer friendly in terms of its language too. It’s very tech focused, very coding focused. It’s a problem overall. It’s a big challenge to mainstreaming some technology.
I was also reminded as we were having that interview, about back in around 1999, 2000. We were in business and we sold a lot of products to the medical community, in particular to pharmaceutical companies that were giveaways to doctors, promotional products. They were all using Palm pilots for the drug databases and we had these special pens that worked on Palm pilots we had invented. We sold it to them. I remember, our sales rep who would sell into that industry, his name was Rich. He would sell all sorts of different promotional products to pharmaceutical companies. One of them were really medical models.
You’ve seen them in doctor’s offices where sometimes there are charts on the wall that show you the structure of the inner ear, or there will be an actual physical model. Like in an OB’s office, they’d have a physical model showing what a baby looks like in the mother’s womb, like a partial cut-away version or cross-section even of the human body in certain areas. Think about what it took to make those models back then, traditional, physical modeling and pattern techniques making injection molds. Because they would make thousands of these and distribute them to doctors all over the country. Think how complicated that was, and expensive.
Now, with all this technology of taking medical scans and then even additive manufacturing, if you wanted to make a run of 500 of them as a pharmaceutical company and give them out to different practices around the country, or even a thousand, maybe you would never go and spend all that money on injection molds. You certainly wouldn’t have to. You could do it through additive manufacturing. While that’s not really going to help heal people, I think it is a realistic application though. It helps educate.
I think that’s another significant component that Jenny talked about, that learning experience, the hands on exposure, just being able to do that in a language that everyone understands. That can be extremely powerful. I’m excited to see what the global conference turns out. I’m looking at seeing if I can swing it so that I can attend in and report back. Now, that conference is after this episode would air, so we might do then a follow-up in the future. There are some other resources besides this conference that they’re doing up in the San Francisco area. They have a free downloadable eBook on their site, A Roadmap from Idea to Implementation – 3D Printing for Pre-Surgical Applications.
Turning 3D printing, VR-AR into surgical powered tools or medical powered tools. How wonderful would that be if that future that we’re seeing on Pure Genius and Grey’s Anatomy and other places actually turns out to be really attainable in a short period of time? I actually believe it’s getting there. I don’t think this is science fiction. If anything, I might call it science future. It’s a little science simplification right now. It’s not too far out in the future. I’m excited about it. I’m so glad we had that interview today.