From hobbies to health care: 3D printing helps deliver more precise radiation therapy at Cape Breton Cancer Centre

Dr. Tynan Stevens, medical physicist uses the 3D printer at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre to create a bolus for radiation therapy.
Dr. Tynan Stevens, medical physicist uses the 3D printer at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre to create a bolus for radiation therapy.
Using a 3D printer for hobbies like making models or crafts is nothing new but using it to deliver radiation therapy more precisely is something new for the Cape Breton Cancer Centre in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
The printer is being used to print 3D boluses.
A bolus is a flat, rubber-like material. When used in radiation therapy, it covers the patient’s skin, providing a targeted dose of radiation and minimizing damage to healthy skin and tissue. 
Traditionally, staff have had to cut and shape the bolus to fit the area receiving the radiation. With a traditional bolus, the fit is never quite right. There are usually air gaps between the bolus and skin that staff try to close with tape or other tools. This is not the case with a bolus that is printed in 3D.
“With this technology, one size fits one, it’s not one size fits all,” said Dr. Tynan Stevens, medical physicist at the cancer centre.
The whole process is tailored to the individual patient said Dr. Stevens. 
To start the process, a CT scan is done of the area that will receive the radiation. 
A bolus is developed from the scan in the shape of the treatment area. The bolus can be printed to adapt to just about any part of the body including the head, neck and face. 
Another CT scan is used to ensure the bolus fits the area perfectly – flush with the skin, no air gaps and no tape required to close gaps or hold it in place.
“Having a bolus that’s a perfect fit means we can get a precise dosage down to the millimetre for the patient,” said Dr. Stevens. “Not only are they getting better, more precise treatment but they are also more comfortable while they are getting treated because the bolus fits better.”
The cancer centre purchased the printer in 2020 but a clinical roll out of the technology was delayed due to COVID-19. 
In November 2020, the cancer centre treated its first patient using a 3D bolus. It takes anywhere from eight to 24 hours to print a bolus, so 3D printing is not appropriate for urgent cases. 
Having a 3D printer at the cancer centre opens the door to many possibilities and benefits.
Not only does it provide a unique treatment option for some patients, but it also helps the cancer centre move towards a provincial standard as part of Nova Scotia Health’s Cancer Care program. 
Outside of patient care, 3D printing could also be used to explore research opportunities—something that could make a difference in people’s lives.