3D printing, where objects are built layer by layer using a special printer, is widely used in different industries to make everything from hearing aids and aircraft parts to shoes, and even pastries. But did you know that it’s about to revolutionise our healthcare too? Dr Gunpreet Oberoi is an expert in this area. She completed her PhD thesis in 2021 on the applications of 3D printing in medicine and dentistry at the Medical University of Vienna (MedUni Vienna) and is currently continuing her investigations there as a postdoctoral researcher.
“3D printing can be used to create medical models and tools that are specific for a patient. Or if doctors need to do surgery on a complicated case, for example, a patient with a brain tumour, then they can come to us with the patient’s MRI or CT data,” she says. “We make models for pre-operative planning and skills training for complicated cases like bone fractures, implant replacements, brain pathologies, and so on. At the moment, 3D-printed medical devices are built on a named-patient basis, but the goal is to scale this up to a routine service to advance the standard of healthcare.” Recently, Gunpreet was selected to be a member of the first European special interest group of healthcare experts who are planning the future of in-house 3D printing in hospitals.
When Gunpreet started at MedUni Vienna, she wasn’t a German speaker (she is now), but she never felt she was missing out. Everything related to the PhD programme, like lectures and meetings, is conducted through English. To ensure that her project was going smoothly, Gunpreet’s supervisor held in-depth meetings twice a year where they’d discuss her progress, expectations, and any difficulties she’d encountered both personally and professionally. Frequently, the university hosts career development seminars and lectures on interesting topics for students. She says, “There are meetings and grant opportunities from time to time aimed at young female talent, and these are especially helpful for women in science.”
Gunpreet credits the success of her PhD to the excellent support she’s received at MedUni Vienna. She was encouraged to seize every opportunity that came along. “You’re given the chance to go abroad for conferences, educational courses, and workshops. I went to Belgium to get hands-on training on the software used for 3D printing,” she says. “Conferences and symposiums are knowledge hubs where you can exchange ideas and see state-of-the-art technologies and research methods.” On return, everyone gets together to share what they’ve learned and discuss new ideas for future research.
Gunpreet was initially trained as a dentist and later obtained degrees in Dental Lasers and Implantology. At the interdisciplinary Centre for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering at MedUni Vienna, she uses her expertise when working with the medical engineers there. A key element of her PhD project included testing different 3D-printing materials to analyse their biocompatibility and toxicity for future use in humans. This type of testing is necessary if you want to create a medical device for a patient and bring it to market. Part of her cutting-edge research involved making a 4D cross-section model of a human skull. This was similar to a 3D model, except it contained an additional dimension – a moving tongue. This allows testing of oral prosthetic devices in a more realistic setting without needing a live patient. Together with her mentor, Gunpreet has a patent on a unique 3D-printed device called a “Smart Obturator” to address cleft palate, a birth defect where the roof of a baby’s mouth doesn’t form correctly. The plan for the future is to combine this device with 3D bioprinting, that is 3D printing with cells, to correct cleft palate.
Gunpreet was attracted to move to Vienna from India as it’s known for being one of the most liveable cities in the world. It’s lived up to its reputation, and she feels that doing her PhD at MedUni Vienna helped her grow and mature as a person. She also appreciates the stimulating work atmosphere at the university. “I learned that working in a multidisciplinary environment is a great asset as one can combine knowledge and skills from completely different spheres of science and achieve startling results,” she says. “The university is full of really talented people.”
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Dr Oberoi is a postdoctoral researcher at MedUni Vienna's Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering. She has a background in dentistry and implantology. Ultimately, she aims to utilize 3D printing to enhance the standard healthcare and escalate patient-safety.