AMS Spring 2023

3D Printing for Diagnosing and Treating Cancer and R&D Tax Credits


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Cancer research has evolved with the help of 3D printing. Doctors can create patient-specific 3D models of cancerous body parts to prepare for upcoming surgeries. Medical engineers can create digital 3D models on a computer and 3D print them, which allows doctors to analyze and study a physical model before a surgical procedure is done. Companies who conduct research and utilize 3D printing are eligible to obtain the Research and Development Tax Credit.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

University Research and 3D Printing

Rice University

Rice University in Houston, Texas, is one of the country’s most comprehensive research universities and is at the forefront of cancer research. Rice has been recognized for their research by receiving a $5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). This grant will be utilized by Rice to create patient-specific, digital and 3D printed models that will help diagnose and treat invasive cancer surgeries.

Dr. B.J. Fregly, a mechanical engineer, specializes in creating computer models that predict how patients will recover after surgery or rehabilitation. Dr. Fregly has taken his research to Rice University and will be creating patient-specific models of the pelvis for bone cancer patients waiting to receive pelvic surgery. Dr. Fregly’s 3D models will improve the outcome and recovery time of operations. Dr. Fregly explains the function of his research by saying:

“Custom pelvic prostheses have the potential to both maximize walking ability and minimize recovery time, but they are not available clinically because of low reliability. That’s an engineering problem that Rice is in a good position to tackle.”

Rice University uses 3D printing for a plethora of research areas such as the 3D bioprinting of scaffold structures that mimic the architecture of real bone. These models help scientists see how bone cancer cells respond to stimuli.

Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic is a world-renowned nonprofit academic medical center that has a large focus on using 3D printing with cancer research. The key word, in using 3D printing for cancer research, is “patient-specific”. Mayo Clinic doctors had a patient, Michael Slag, with a very rare form of lung cancer known as a Pancoast tumor. 3D printing helped the Mayo Clinic doctors by providing them with an exact replica of Slag’s lungs which allowed doctors to practice before the surgery took place. The 3D model eliminated any factor of surprise that could have occurred and allowed doctors to send Slag home just three days after surgery. The model not only benefited doctors, but assured the patient that the procedure would be under total control.

Drexel University

Rice University isn’t the only collegiate institution to implement 3D printing into their cancer research. Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, uses 3D printers to recreate complex tumors. In 2002, Dr. Wei Sun of Drexel University patented a 3D printer that printed cells, but recently Dr. Sun and his team of researchers patented an improved version that keeps a large amount of cells usable for experimentation compared to other 3D printer models.


Similar to Rice University, NYU creates patient- specific 3D models to diagnose and treat kidney and prostate tumors. NYU uses the Stratasys J750 3D printer, which can create textures resembling anything from soft tissue to hard bone, for their medical models. The Stratasys printer provides the tools needed to produce comprehensive 3D models in over 360,000 colors, textures, and gradients.


Yale has found that 3D printing skin can provide more benefits than traditional skin grafts. There are two types of skin grafts, biological and synthetic. Biological skin grafts are usually from donors and may be rejected from the patient’s body, resulting in failure. Synthetic skin can be made to exact measurements but is quite expensive to produce. 3D printed skin is the best of both worlds; biological material is used to arrange cells in a structure that closely resembles natural skin which promotes faster healing and prevents skin scarring.


3D printing is an innovative form of technology that has the potential to further assist doctors with surgical planning, surgery and rehabilitation. Advanced 3D printers have the capability of producing various detailed characteristics to create patient-specific models. The utilization of 3D printing has significantly impacted the medical field and will continue to aid in the fight against cancer.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Charles Goulding and John Chin of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing and cancer treatment. 


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