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Michelle Higgins, Ph.D., holding her 3D printing project

June 14, 2021

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

3D printing, 4-H values, and 21st century technology are coming together to forge a new collaboration between Mayo Clinic and surgery residents in Vietnam.

When Michelle Higgins, Ph.D., a student at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine ― Arizona Campus, rotated through the Ear, Nose, and Throat Dissection Lab, a light bulb within her went off. She realized that not all residents or medical students had access to the technology she did to learn surgery on temporal bones. Temporal bones form parts of the side and base of the skull, and learning to safely operate in this space is integral to treating diseases of the ear.

"It's really complicated anatomy, so the need for residents to be able to practice dissection surgery on temporal bones is very important. Often the supply of bones is limited by cadaveric donors who have given their tissue for educational reasons. Not every resident training program or medical school has the budget to provide cadaveric bones, particularly those in remote parts of the world," says Dr. Higgins. "In some cultures, it is not acceptable to practice on donated human bones or organs."

Drawing on the values of leadership and community service she learned in 4-H while growing up in Kansas, Dr. Higgins was inspired to help. She turned to her own 3D printer, eager to advance educational opportunities for trainees in other countries. A search of the internet returned files on 3D-printed temporal bones, and she quickly went to work.

"The idea behind 3D printing is that you remove the need to rely on donations after someone passes. That's where I thought, maybe I could produce some 3D models that my peers could drill on. But at the same time, maybe we can open a new opportunity for global education for international programs and trainees who don't have access to as many specimens or 3D printing technology," says Dr. Higgins.

3D printing is an important part of research, education, and practice advanced by Mayo Clinic's Center for Regenerative Medicine. Regenerative medicine seeks to repair, replace, or restore diseased cells, tissues, or organs. 3D-printed scaffolds can provide an alternative for donor tissue in research and practice and can provide models for regenerative surgery.

During her previous doctoral work in immunology, Dr. Higgins learned of cultural sensitivities around organ and tissue donation in some countries. With that in mind, she determined to provide 3D-printed temporal bones to residents where surgery on cadaveric temporal bones—even for educational purposes—would not be considered culturally acceptable. Based on conversations and outreach to colleagues at Mayo Clinic, she decided to ship the 3D-printed temporal bones to medical trainees in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

"It goes without saying that it is crucial for students to have accurate models to practice surgical techniques that train the next generation of ear, nose and throat specialists,"  says Michael Hinni, M.D., chair of the Mayo Clinic Department of Otorhinolaryngology in Arizona. "This is a wonderful way for Mayo Clinic students to share their expertise as well as demonstrate innovative leadership in medical education."

"I think one of the other advantages of introducing this project in medical school is that it raises a hidden curriculum of how as a medical student one can contribute to simulation, medical education, and global opportunities to improve patient care," says Dr. Higgins.

Dr. Higgins is a fourth-year medical student who is undecided about what area of surgery to specialize. As she finishes up her medical education, she envisions expanding her 3D printing initiatives to modeling other parts of the body and shipping them to countries beyond Vietnam. As her 4-H values of leadership and community service play out across the globe, Dr. Higgins emphasizes that improving education is a key to Mayo Clinic's value that the needs of the patient come first.