Through 3D Printing, Breast Surgeons Can Better Target Cancer Tumors

By Steve Blanchard - August 20, 2021

Camila Gaither is religious about her annual mammogram and has always been happy to hear that she is healthy. But in February, things changed. When the 66-year-old went for her yearly mammogram, she learned she had cancer.

“My first cousin died of breast cancer and I knew I had to find the best hospital for my care,” Gaither said. “I knew Moffitt was my answer.”

Gaither soon connected with Dr. Brian Czerniecki, chair of Moffitt’s Breast Oncology Department. Right away, Gaither learned that surgery was her best option.

“The cancer was very small, and he told me about a clinical trial which was a test to help doctors better locate and remove cancer,” Gaither said. “I really wanted to be a part of that for myself and for women in the future. I wanted to play a small part in history.”

photo of breast mold and how it fits over the breast to assist surgeons in removing the tumor
This digital image shows how the mold fits over the breast and assists surgical oncologists in the operating room.

Gaither joined a breast locator study, a clinical trial that uses MRI technology and 3D printing to incorporate a breast mold to provide a 3D view of the tumor in relationship with the breast.

Surgical oncologist Dr. Nazanin Khakpour is the principal investigator of the study at Moffitt and said this localizes the tumor more accurately and reduces the need for additional surgeries.

“This is for women who are candidates for lumpectomies,” Khakpour said. “Patients receive an MRI and the scan is sent to a lab where a mold of the patient’s breast is created on a 3D printer.”

Diagram showing how extended parts of the mold guide surgeons and indicate how deep the tumor lies beneath the patient's skin
The extended parts of the mold guide surgeons and indicate how deep the tumor lies beneath the patient's skin.

That 3D mold of the breast is then placed on the patient during surgery and serves as a guide for surgeons to remove cancer cells more accurately.

“This mold is physically on the patient and shows perforations outlining the location of the tumor,” Khakpour said. “The mold shows us in 3D the depth of the tumor under the skin and is more efficient in the operating room.”

When Gaither was told about the trial, she was fascinated and happy to learn she was a candidate.

“I said yes to it without question,” Gaither said. “I was so curious about it and I am always open to new things. I was thrilled about the process.”

Gaither said that creating the mold was a unique experience, but not an unpleasant one.

Data collected from the MRI was sent to a lab in New Hampshire, where the mold of Gaither’s breast was created, sterilized and shipped to Moffitt to be used on Gaither during her surgery.

While this clinical trial is being conducted in several cancer centers throughout the country, Khakpour said Moffitt is the only cancer center in Florida actively enrolling patients. So far, 14 patients have been enrolled.

“It’s important to understand that this trial is only available to patients with early-stage cancer in one breast,” Khakpour said. “It can’t yet be used for bilateral breast cancers. It’s expected that this particular trial will go on for about two years with a goal of enrolling 400 patients at multiple sites.”

portrait of blockquote author

"It’s expected that this particular trial will go on for about two years with a goal of enrolling 400 patients at multiple sites."

- Dr. Nazanin Khakpour, surgical oncologist

This summer, Gaither began her first round of chemotherapy and will also receive radiation therapy. The hope is that by the end of the year she will have a good prognosis. In the meantime, Gaither and her husband are celebrating the experience thus far and have even incorporated her breast mold into their home décor.

Photo of Camila Gaither's breast mold in her living room
Camila Gaither proudly incorporated her mold into her home decor.

“I didn’t see the mold until after surgery,” Gaither said. “The first time I really saw it was when I came home. My husband took my hand and said, ‘I want to show you something.’ He took me into the living room and there it was! I just thought, wow, this is the coolest thing!”

Today it sits on display, complete with a shell on top of it to add some artistic flair. Not only does it remind Gaither of her cancer journey and her hope for a full recovery, but it also makes for one very interesting conversation piece when the couple entertains.

“It’s just fabulous and my husband loves telling the story about how it was made and how it was used to treat me and keep me healthy,” Gaither said. “It’s just absolutely fabulous.”

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