Case Studies

A world-first insight into the lungs of a COVID-19 patient with 3D printing

Case Study
  • Oncology

COVID-19 has impacted almost every aspect of our lives and the medical community are still learning more about this invisible disease every day. As we emerge from the first wave of COVID-19, Axial3D is playing its part in helping to transform how doctors understand the effects of the virus.

Working with the respiratory team at a leading Northern Ireland hospital, Axial3D produced a precision 1:1 scale 3D model of an actual COVID-19 patient's lungs, from CT scans taken on day 14 of infection. While the patient survived, there may well be long term damage caused by the virus. On the model, you can clearly see in yellow the inflammatory pus and scarred tissue that sits within the airways that was stopping the patient getting oxygen into their blood.

The model was produced using machine learning algorithms powered by AWS and Formlabs Form 3 printing technology, with the lungs split into 8 parts, which were then joined together after printing with precision placed magnets. Splitting the model enables it to be opened up and provides a range of views of just how deep the infection is, delivering unique insights into the virus and how it affects the patient’s lung.

The surgeon Axial3D worked with has treated some of the worst affected COVID patients in Northern Ireland. He is passionate in his belief that the more tools they have to help them understand how the virus operates, the better chances they have of treating more people more effectively.

“This is why people get breathless. Their ability to get oxygen into the system is reduced. And when we see the worst cases, this is widespread throughout the lungs. And it's actually quite concerning and this is the reason why a lot of people do require assistance for their breathing.”

Dr. William Loan said that in his thirty years working as a Radiologist, he has spent much of that time building pictures of 3D images of patient pathologies in his mind from their 2D scans. Having access to the model has taken away that additional work to give him an accurate picture of the patient’s lungs and the disease within, allowing for faster, incredibly accurate planning discussions. The models also enable non-medical professionals a unique insight into a radiologists perspective.

Roger Johnston, CEO at Axial3D said “When discussing COVID-19 with a radiologist, we suggested 3D printing the lungs. He sent us some sets of CT scans, and we printed them in our Formlabs 3D print lab. We now have this incredible result, where we are now able to visualize lungs, like they have never been seen before. We’ve been able to provide the team with a completely new way of viewing and understanding the long term effects from the infection.”

Research into lung damage caused by COVID-19 is still at a very early stage. According to a study conducted by Chinese Radiologists published in March, 94% of patients still had some level of lung damage after being discharged from hospital. It’s believed those with a mild form of COVID-19 are unlikely to suffer permanent lung damage. But those in hospital, and particularly those with a severe infection or in intensive care, are more vulnerable to complications.

Coronavirus: Warning over long-term lung damage. Read the full BBC interview here.