The healthcare sector has been exploring applications of 3D printing for decades, but the cost and complexity of scaling the technology has stunted its path to mass adoption. Axial3D is hoping to overcome these barriers by incorporating machine learning into the process.

The Belfast-based startup has developed a system that uses computer vision algorithms to automatically label CT and MRI scans and then converts the images into 3D-printed models of an individual patient's anatomy. Using machine learning to produce the models helps cut the time to create and deliver the 3D-printed files from up to eight weeks down to 24-48 hours, the startup claims.

© axial3D
© axial3D

"The challenge is really to identify the anatomy within an MRI or CT scan," Axial3D CTO Niall Haslan tells Techworld. "There are people that are offering that as a service, but typically what they'll do is they'll have a radiologist or a biomedical engineer who has to go through the CT scanner and turn the 2D images into the 3D model. What we've done is automate that process by applying machine learning."

Doctors already using the system have reported impressive results. Andrew Bowey, a spinal surgeon at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals, said it made a complex spina bifida procedure 120 minutes faster, while Michael Eames, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Ulster Hospital, noted a saving of more than 200 minutes. 

In Belfast City Hospital, the technology has been used in a world-first, life-saving kidney transplant from a 45-year-old man with a renal cyst to his 22-year-old daughter, who was suffering with end-stage renal failure. Axial3D created a model of the donor's kidney that the surgeons used to successfully guide the transplantation.

The models also allow patients to provide better-informed consent for operations as the 360 degree-view prints are easier to conceptualise than the traditional, grayscale 2D scans. This helps patients to understand both complex conditions such as cancer, as well as more straightforward orthopaedic procedures.

"We've had a couple of examples where the surgeon has been able to show the patient the extent of the damage in their trauma and really help them understand what's needed from physiotherapy and ongoing interventions to help them recover," says Haslan. 

"Because they're thinking, 'it's fine, I'm up and walking again,' and then when the surgeon shows them the model, they really understand the extent of the damage and are much more cautious in terms of the activity that they will want to undertake."

Going global

Axial3D initially began working with NHS organisations in Northern Ireland and the Health Service Executive (HSE) in the Republic of Ireland, before moving to sites in England from Newcastle to Southampton.

At University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, the startup is providing 3D-printed models of patients' hearts that clinicians can use to personalise treatment, plan operations and provide additional insights to patients and their families. At Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, it has created an in-house 3D printing lab that gives orthopaedic and spinal surgeons immediate access to patient-specific models for pre-surgical planning.

Haslan credits the speed of the company's expansion to the support of Digital Catapult's Machine Intelligence Garage, a government-funded programme that provides members with computation power and expertise from the likes of Amazon Web Services, Nvidia and Newcastle University.

"Being a regional startup, you need to tap into these bigger networks in order to get out there, and having a body like Digital Catapult that's connected across the UK and across the region was really useful for unlocking some of that potential," he says.

It now plans to use the $3 million it raised from a funding round last year to expand into the USA, where 16 of the country's top 20 hospitals have a 3D-printing strategy in place.

"That's where we see the majority of the market for this kind of technology," says Haslan. "The funding we've received will allow us to set up sales staff in the US and the product development will continue to be done here in the UK."

Axial3D was one of eight companies recognised in the 2019 Digital Catapult Platinum Awards. Techworld helped with the judging of the awards, which recognise and celebrate the most innovative advanced digital technology startups and scaleups that Digital Catapult has supported in the past year.