Houston company is using 3D printing to enhance surgeon training and prevent avoidable patient deaths
Practice makes perfect
It is no surprise that, when a company offered life-like bladders for medical training, Houston urologists jumped at the opportunity — many had to learn the surgery by operating on bell peppers.
This sort of produce practice is the traditional method for teaching surgeons. Before a doctor ever makes an incision on a living person, they'll practice surgery on food — slicing bananas open and sewing grapes back together.
But for a pair of Baylor College of Medicine-educated doctors, that didn't seem like sufficient prep for working with living bodies; fruit surgery was not fruitful enough. In 2014, Drs. Jacques Zaneveld and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld founded Lazarus3D to build a better training model — and layer by layer, they created models of abs and ribs and even hearts with a 3D printer.
"We adapted pre-existing 3D printing technology in a novel proprietary way that allows us to, overnight, build soft, silicone or hydrogel models of human anatomy," says Jacques, who serves as CEO. "They can be treated just like real tissue."
This isn't 3D printing's foray in medicine. In 1999, doctors in North Carolina implanted the first 3D-printed bladder in human bodies — they covered the synthetic organs in the patients' cells so that their bodies accepted them. Since, researchers have continued to find uses for the technology in the field, printing other organs and making prosthetic limbs.
But the Lazarus3D founders felt like medical training was lagging behind. Even cadavers, which medical schools also use to prepare doctors for surgery, don't represent a healthy human body or the diseased state of a hospital patient, said Smriti, who works as the research director.
The pair turned their kitchen into a printing lab and set to work, creating life-like models of human organs. They didn't have to go far after their first successes to find potential buyers — they just went to Starbucks. In a coffeeshop in the heart of the Medical Center, they talked loudly about their product until the neighborhood doctors and researchers took interest and gathered around.
Over the next few years, the Lazarus3D team pooled resources and contacts and, a summer after opening, they moved out of their kitchen and into an office. They now are a Capital Factory portfolio company and have partnerships with Texas Children's, Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and others, providing organs for specialized training — and the more they expand, the more they're able to prepare doctors for invasive, sometimes dangerous procedures.
"There are over 400,000 deaths annually in the U.S. due to medical error," Smriti says. "Not all of them are due to surgical mistakes, but all of these, nonetheless, were preventable."
The models can also be used for explaining to patients in a visual way what surgeries they're about to receive — the black and grey smears on an MRI scan might not actually help a patient understand much about what a surgeon is going to do to their body. In 2018, Lazarus3D won a contest with NASA on the potential for 3D printing organs in space, so that major surgeries might be performed there. And the printed organs can also be used by researchers to safely develop new surgery methods.
This year, the company grew to seven people and aims to expand even more to add to its sales and manufacturing teams. Having been funded mostly by friends and family investors, Lazarus3D plans enter its first equity round this year. They're raising $6 million.
"Every generation in medicine, people look back at what was done before and think 'Man, that was barbaric,'" Jacques said. "Fifty years from now, we're going to look back and think, 'Man, back then we used to just give someone a patient to learn how to do physical skills on? That seems crazy.'"