Taking selfies has become a new phenomena thanks to technological advancements in cameras, but I don’t think most of us would go as far as 3D printing ourselves.
Unless, that is, you were having major surgery and your doctors would benefit from having a working model of your body parts.
Enter Axial3D, the brainchild of a very motivated young entrepreneur, Daniel Crawford, who was one of the first people to obtain a degree in Medical Visualisation and Human Anatomy at the University of Glasgow, after having studied Biomedical Engineering at Ulster University. Daniel also worked for local health tech company Intelesens before starting his own TechStartNI- and Halo-funded venture.
Daniel Crawford holding an anatomical 3D model
Axial3D sells to public and private health providers across many surgical specialities including orthopaedics, oncology, oral and maxillofacial, cardiac, and most recently trauma. It uses standard 2D MRI and CT scan files to create 3D visualisations, and then prints out kidneys, femurs, lungs, hearts – anything that may need operating on. Any soft or hard tissue in the body can be printed.
The most amazing thing about Axial3D’s business is that they’ve rented a city centre office on Linenhall Street and turned it into an anatomical factory that can supply models all over the world. “3D printer technology has come a long way in the past five years,” said Daniel. Indeed, these machines are not large, and the capital costs have gone dramatically down. Axial3D has nine printers, and a body part can be printed in a few hours, so their output can scale
upwards impressively, if the operation is run 24/7.
There are some barriers to this kind of innovation – but Daniel has clearly thought them through. “At the moment, if a surgeon wants to order a model to practice on, they need to physically collect scan data on a disc, from the hospital’s radiology department, and post it out to us. That’s why it was critical for us to create an online ordering system that we launched a few weeks ago. Now, they can upload their files, and transfer them instantly. The surgeon can receive the model within days. It’s opened up a global market for us,” said Daniel.
No one else is doing this. Axial3D isn’t the only provider on the 3D medical model market, but it’s the only one to offer such a fast turnaround time – crucial if they want to export models, or serve markets like trauma where surgeries are time sensitive.
Also in the 'anatomical factory' on Linenhall Street is the post-processing desk. The SLA resin-based printouts need supporting material, so as a liver is printed, there are small structures printed under it to hold it up. Those structural elements need to be removed and the whole thing smoothed over to make a perfect life-sized model, before being dispatched by Axial3D.
Daniel said, “Surgery costs £60 per minute on average. Our models are used for pre-operative planning to save time and valuable resource. Surgeons can save time ‘on-the-job’ if they’ve practised beforehand. The patient’s post-op recovery time will improve when the surgery is done more quickly and more smoothly, through keyholes rather than leaving a large opening. Equipment needed for surgery can be prepared in advance using the models as precise guides. For instance, in the case of orthopaedic surgery, they can bend plates and practise screw trajectory before they go into the body, making it less invasive while saving time and valuable resource for the hospital.”
Daniel then showed me something that broke my heart and uplifted me at the same time – a tiny model of a femur from an 8-year-old girl with brittle bone disease. Using the model, her surgeon was able to work out how to bend metal plates around her tiny bones before her leg was opened up in the operating theatre.
At present, Axial3D’s models are being used at SE Belfast Trust, Belfast Royal Children’s Hospital, and Waterford Hospital, as well as private hospitals including Orthoderm & Kingsbridge. There are customers in Germany as well.
“The new era of healthcare is about making everything patient-specific,” said Daniel.
Another thing struck me about Daniel’s story – if he hadn’t started his own firm, chances were, he’d have to leave NI to pursue a career elsewhere, possibly the US. It’s critical that innovators have opportunities to start something here on our shores to keep talent local.
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