Karen, could you let us know about your background and your journey to Additive Manufacturing?

My first 3D Printing experience was during my master studies as Biomedical Engineer at the KU Leuven (Belgium). During the summer I had the opportunity to do an internship at MTEC (Bangkok, Thailand), where I designed and 3D Printed a personalized total-knee implant. I’ve always been passionate about new innovations in the medical field, because these have an immediate impact on patients’ lives. It was a wonderful experience to be so close to helping someone through innovation, even though it was only one patient.

After graduation I started at one of the biggest 3D Printing companies, Materialise. In the beginning of my carrier, I could show my passion for sharing knowledge by teaching on 3D Printing and the Mimics Innovation Suite software to generate accurate 3D models from medical images. These years as Medical Application Engineer were very insightful through various conversations with researchers, engineers and clinicians and I gained a lot of knowledge about the cardiovascular market. Now I’m using these insights as Cardiovascular Market Specialist to further development of this field through 3D Printing and Planning.

Me teaching how to reconstruct 3D heart models based on CT scans during a Mimics Innovation Course

What is Materialise Medical and what is your role within this structure? 

Materialise has three main business units: the Manufacturing department that provides 3D Printing services and consultancy for various industrial applications, the Software department that provides different software packages to enable your own 3D Printers to run efficiently and print in high quality and the third department is Materialise Medical, where we assist all types of medical experts to get more out of their medical images through 3D Printing and Planning. This can go from planning and printing a personalized hip implant for hip revision surgeries, to providing companies with a realistic aortic aneurysm benchtop model to test their new stent graft before going to animal trials and even to assisting hospitals to set up their own Point-of-Care 3D Printing Lab.

Within Materialise Medical, I focus on the business development of 3D Printing and Planning for cardiovascular applications. The cardiovascular field caught my attention, since there is even more to explore compared to the orthopedic field. It’s a rapidly evolving market, with lots of new innovative devices, excitement during clinical trials and a growing need for personalized 3D Printing and Planning before the procedures.

What are some of the medical challenges your team is trying to resolve?

Nowadays, the hot topic in the Structural Heart field is Transcatheter Mitral Valve Replacement (TMVR). The Mitral Valve is one of the four valves in your heart and enables blood to flow in the correct direction through your heart, ensuring the oxygenated blood is delivered to all your body parts. When the valve is diseased and doesn’t close properly, a bloodflow in the opposite direction occurs. This can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure and even heart failure. The golden standard to treat this diseased mitral valve is to surgically replace the valve. Meaning the patient has to go under full anesthesia, will undergo a sternotomy to cut the breastbone in order to reach the heart, needs to be connected to a heart-lung machine, awaits a long recovery and is prone to infections. As an alternative, transcatheter-based solutions are rapidly gaining interest. With this technique, a replacement for the malfunctioning mitral valve is inserted via a small incision at the groin, brought up through the vessel and deployed when it’s correctly located in the heart. Currently, there is a race against time by various Medical Device Companies to bring the first devices on the market. During those clinical trials, the companies want to make sure that on one hand they perform sufficient procedures as quickly as possible, but on the other hand they want to avoid bad outcome. Hence, personalized planning before each procedure is the key to success. This planning reveals more than what’s visible on the 2D medical images, by showing the anatomy and key measurements in 3D.

Materialise Medical offers two planning tools. The first option is to 3D Print anatomical heart models are a great tool for such a pre-procedural planning, because holding a perfect replica of the patient’s anatomy in your hand gives you a realistic idea of the spatial orientation of the valve, allows you to define the optimal treatment plan and even try it out. 

On the other hand, it’s not always necessary to 3D Print and you can also gain a lot of info by doing a virtual analysis. In the case of TMVR, our 3D Planning software guides medical experts to get the most out of their medical images by assessing the mitral valve, defining the most suited device size, virtually implant it and assessing that the newly implanted mitral device will not completely block the blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta and hence the rest of your body.

To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?

Explanation of the TMVR Planning based on a 3D Print during a live case at PCR London Valves 2019

Recently I had the honor to provide a 3D Printed anatomical model of the mitral valve with already a valve implanted for a valve in valve mitral replacement live case at PCR London Valves. With the 3D Print it became clear that one of the struts of the valve that was previously implanted was partially blocking the blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta. This obstruction should be minimized in order to keep sufficient blood flow to all your organs. The 3D Printed anatomical model was used to define the optimal procedure strategy in order to make sure that this obstruction was not increased.
I felt extremely proud during the live case, seeing my 3D Print on the big screen of the main arena (which fits around 750-1000 persons) and hearing key physicians in the field explain the challenges of the procedures on the 3D Print before actually doing the live case. Here you find the LinkedIn post about the valve in valve TMVR case. 

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman in 3D Printing?

Although I’ve never been in a situation where I felt discriminated by being a woman, I’m very proud that our Structural Heart team consists of (almost) all women! From the product manager, through the technical consultants, marketing manager and even to the technical software team. It gives me a lot of positive energy knowing that we’re conquering this rapidly evolving market with a female team. Below a picture of me with some female colleagues next to our 3D Printed friend “Freddie”.


What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far? 

In the healthcare sector there are many strong 3D Printing stories, since they have a direct impact on the life of patients. One case that really opened my eyes on the possibilities of 3D Printing is the story of baby Kaiba, since a personalized 3D Printed solution was probably the one and only right treatment for him.

He suffered from severe tracheobronchomalacia, a very rare congenital disease in which the cartilage of the trachea is not strong enough to support it, leading to tracheal collapse. The University of Michigan and Materialise joined forces to design a tracheal splint that fits perfectly around Kaiba’s trachea. This splint was 3D Printed in polycaprolactone, a bioresorbable polymer that allows the cartilage to grow and resorbs after around three years, leaving Kaiba with a strong trachea so he can breathe on his own.

Baby Kaiba who suffered from tracheobronchomalacia and could breathe again on his own after implantation of a 3D Printed tracheal splint

Where do you think the industry will move to in the next 10 years?

I believe that Point-of-Care 3D Printing will be implemented in all major hospitals. Point-of-Care (POC) 3D printing refers to just-in-time 3D-printed medical equipment, such as anatomical models, manufactured based on the patient’s medical images and directly at hospitals: the place of care. 3D printing at the point-of-care allows clinicians to create patient-specific anatomical models more rapidly than previously possible while also leveraging the subspecialty knowledge available within the hospital. We see a growing number of hospitals adopting 3D printing or increasing their investment in the technology, maturing from small labs to full-service 3D printing facilities serving a broader range of clinical specialties. 

What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?

Just do it! 3D Printing is a wonderful world, so don’t hesitate to come and enjoy it. Certainly 3D Printing in Healthcare intrigues me, because you have a direct impact on patient’s lives.

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?

I have the feeling there are already a lot of women involved in Additive Manufacturing. However, it’s not always that well visible. Initiatives like “Women in 3D Printing” are great to connect all these bright minds and it will encourage others to join this wonderful world.

Favorite 3D tool?

Automatic Heart Segmentation tool

Favorite moment in your day job?

Getting inspired by searching through new devices, trials, talks,… on LinkedIn while enjoying my after-lunch-cappuccino. 

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years?

3D Printing of Nitinol which would enable the Printing of personalized cardiovascular devices (such as stents and valves) that are designed to perfectly fit on the patient’s anatomy.

Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview?

Melisa Cardona who’s making a difference in the South-American 3D Printing market.

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