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Cutting edge tech: Albany company makes 3D printed medical models for surgery practice
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Cutting edge tech: Albany company makes 3D printed medical models for surgery practice

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A company that’s on the bleeding edge of biomedical engineering is based in Albany. Lazarus 3D, a company that uses 3D printing to produce realistic medical models of organs and human tissue, began its operations this year.

The purpose of these models is to provide surgeons with the ability to practice complex procedures ahead of actually operating on a patient. Lazarus 3D’s founders believe this technology will revolutionize the field of medicine.

“There’s been no way to rehearse the surgery you’re going to be doing before the operation,” said Jacques Zaneveld, CEO and founder of Lazarus 3D (Laz3D). “All they have is a 2D image and a grayscale model … that’s about it.”

“The only way to get that experience is by practicing on a live human person,” he added. “We knew we needed to find a way to help physicians get that experience without putting patients at risk.”

Humble origins

Jacques and his wife, Smriti Zaneveld, the company’s president, founded the business together in Houston while they were attending doctorate programs at Baylor College of Medicine. The business actually started in Jacques’ kitchen, using a 3D printer that he built himself and initially used to make glow-in-the-dark plastic octopus earrings.

Yeah, the business was started with profits from selling phosphorescent jewelry.

It’s come a long way from those humble origins, however, and after years of research and development — and a move to Albany in July 2020 from the medical hub of Houston — the company is finally preparing to launch.  

The models they produce aren’t hard plastic, like you may have seen of other 3D printed models. Instead, they are made of silicone and hydrogel that mimics realistic organ tissues. The idea is to make it as close to the real surgery as possible, so the organs have layers and even bleed when they’re cut into.

Not only can the company produce realistic organs, they can even use scans of a patient’s specific liver or kidney so doctors know specifically where a tumor or some other feature would be when they do the procedure for real.

The Zanevelds gave the example of Dr. Jeffrey Tomaszewski in New Jersey, who needed to prepare for a risky and complex kidney surgery. The patient only had one kidney, which had developed a massive tumor. The procedure would need to be done in less than 30 minutes, so the stakes were incredibly high.

"I'm very confident that having the model made things much easier ... and gave me a chance to sort of anticipate some things I may not have anticipated without the model," Tomaszewski said in a follow-up interview. "It was really life-changing for this patient."

Lazarus 3D is celebrating the approval of their medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration in July, which means that they can finally start to secure grants and investors for their products. That approval, and the categorization of their models as “medical devices,” means that these products are able to be billed to a patient’s insurance, just like tests and scans for planning out care would be.

This is a crucial component to making this technology affordable and implementable.

“We want this technology to be available to everybody,” said Smriti. “To do that, it really had to be covered by insurance.”

Not only does the technology help surgeons prepare for surgery — and reduce the risk of medical malpractice — it also helps patients themselves become more comfortable with surgeries that may be considered experimental, because it helps take a lot of the unknown factors out of the process.

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Moving to Oregon

The Zanevelds say they ended up in Albany through a mixture of luck and targeted efforts by their company and local property owners and policies. Laz3D operates out of The Wheelhouse on Water Avenue, a building that has housed other technologically focused start-ups like Agility Robotics, which has since moved to its own space in Tangent.

The building, owned by David Johnson, has become a regular incubator space for local businesses.

“Basically ... all of my tenants that have been in here have outgrown their space,” said Johnson.

The Albany Economic Development team also played a role in attracting the business, because the Albany-Millersburg Enterprise Zone allows businesses to forgo property taxes for their first year.

“A zone allows us to, where there’s need and value, offer a free year local property tax exemption,” said Albany Economic Development Manager Seth Sherry. “That’s insurance for new job creation and investment.”

The Zanevelds say they were also drawn to Albany, as opposed to Houston, where the business started, because of the higher quality of life that can be found here. They say this will help attract new employees.

“Being here helps you think more clearly,” said Smriti. “This is a small town, without dust and without pollution. The quality of life and the cost of living is better here than if we were based in, say, Boston, where we’d have to tell people your rent is going to be $3,000 a month.”

“I was skeptical at first,” she admitted. “But when we moved here I didn’t miss the traffic. I didn’t miss the stress. It’s a better life, honestly.”

They say that the pandemic also played a role in moving Laz3D to Albany.

 “There’s a very good chance we would have never ended up here if not for COVID,” said Jacques. “Everything moved virtual, so there was suddenly no need to stay in Houston or Boston or one of the centers of the biomedical engineering worlds.”

Grand future

The ability to grow quickly is the company’s primary concern. They anticipate that there will be a huge boom in surgical procedures once the pandemic ends. Plus, Jacques described the Willamette Valley as one of the premier areas in the whole world for fresh, young engineering talent.

The company has developed relationships with engineering programs at Linn-Benton Community College, Oregon State University and the University of Oregon.

“We require a high tech workforce … that means we’re going to get the best and the brightest,” Jacques said. “We’ve already had two interns that are current LBCC students and they have done absolutely phenomenal with their work here for us.”

Even if Laz3D outgrows its current space, they say they will stay in this region.

“We absolutely intend to stay in this area and, should the need arise, we would look for a larger space to move into in the Albany/Corvallis area,” Jacques said. “There have been many successful startups in this area … there’s incredible work being done here.”

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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