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Nick Jacobson, MDes: Fusing Data and Design into Life-Changing 3D Tools

Architect turned medical designer creates data-rich 3D printed models to improve patient outcomes

Written by Kristen O'Neill on March 10, 2023
What You Need To Know

This clinical design researcher synthesizes myriad forms of data into remarkably precise 3D models and replicas of human anatomy, giving surgeons and clinicians a more holistic view of their patients’ health challenges, and helping them deliver highly customized solutions in the form of prosthetics and implants that save and improve lives.  

Nicholas Jacobson, MDes, is a CU Anschutz research faculty member and a translational clinical designer at Inworks, where he collaborates with surgeons and physicians across campus using innovative 3D printing technology to improve patient outcomes.

Jacobson develops 3D printing software that creates remarkably precise replicas of human anatomy, such as cleft palate prosthetics and pediatric heart valves that are designed and printed to the exact specifications of patients’ bodies. “We’re building the scaffolding for nature to do its job,” Jacobson says of his custom-printed implants. 

He’s also using 3D printing technology to give surgeons a more holistic view of their patients’ conditions before they enter the OR. For a surgeon treating a patient with epilepsy, for example, Jacobson synthesizes multiple sets of data typically relegated to screens and spreadsheets (from tractography to functional MRIs and more) and maps it onto a 3D printed model of the patient’s brain, which the surgeon then uses for pre-surgical planning and reference during the procedure.

Below, Jacobson shares more about his groundbreaking collaborations, how his background as a former architect informs his work in clinical design research, and the multitude of hobbies he somehow finds time to pursue in his personal life. 

What drives you?

It's really easy to be driven here [at CU Anschutz] because we have the full pathway to develop meaningful research and turn it into something that has an immediate impact. My day typically starts at the hospital seeing the patients we are working to heal in the future with our research; by mid-morning I’m meeting with students and collaborators to come up with new ideas; in the early afternoon I’m back in the lab with brilliant researchers trying to make progress, and at the end of the day I’m usually talking with our regulatory team and innovations team understanding how to get our research to market. So, I’m really driven to take advantage of these opportunities. 

What excites you to get out of bed in the morning and get to work?

It's very exciting to know that I'm going to be working in an environment where I'll be in the same room as a surgeon, a radiologist, an engineer, a computer scientist, and a biologist to work on new and exciting challenges in new and exciting ways. I know that everyone is wicked smart and going to bring their best, so it's very motivating to try and be at my best because the opportunity for real outcomes is at our fingertips. 

Additionally, it should be noted that I did not expect that the most joy I would have in my job would be when my students find jobs after working in our lab. It sounds cliche except when you realize that they are learning things that we are discovering as they are being discovered. So, they are getting jobs in cutting edge fields already with solid experience under their belt. In this way, it often feels like we are part of creating new industries. 

Why are you passionate about what you do?

Very simple, what we are doing is really cool, new, and it's having a real clinical impact on a daily basis. We work on projects at all scales and phases so some are having an impact today and some projects will take a decade. You have to have a lot of confidence, hope, and passion to work in this way and our campus nurtures that. I'm lucky to have as many collaborators and access front-line staff the work is intended for, which allows for rapid and rigorous development. This comes with the reward of actually seeing our work be a solution to problems our clinical teams are having on a daily basis. It still feels like we are just getting started and there are so many projects we want to tackle with more ideas pouring in each day. 

What keeps you up at night?

Ahh, too many ideas and projects with not enough time to get them all done. At first, I worked hard to get everyone excited about what is possible... now they call me in the middle of the night with new ideas. We've created a monster!

What led you to specialize in your area of expertise?

That’s a fun question because my journey here has been untraditional. My background is in architecture. It was a classmate of mine in grad school who came down with a brain tumor that made me understand that we could apply technology typically reserved for design in ways that would benefit medicine. My focus in architecture was to design buildings in extreme environments, which synthesizes lots of environmental data to create a custom structure tailored to difficult sites. As medicine advances we are looking more and more toward personalized solutions. It turns out that my architectural tools and techniques hold solutions to many of the complex problems medicine is looking to solve now. However, it can't be overstated how instrumental my clinical collaborators have been to supporting, encouraging, and helping to move this research forward and turning it into something that is benefiting patients. 

I spent many years working full time as an architect and coming out to this campus over lunch, at night, and over the weekends to research. After seeing the impact my work was having and how much room it had to grow, I took the leap to join this campus as a full time researcher focused on design for clinical applications. 

How does being part of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus ecosystem help you further your work and your professional goals? 

I've worked in many other universities and we have something special here. There is an excitement for innovation that I haven't seen elsewhere. It's funny because before I came here I struggled to get meetings with clinicians to talk about my research or at best, my work would end up as a paperweight. But from the moment I stepped foot on this campus I've had clinicians proposing projects to me and telling me the things I used to have to preach to others!  

There is also a sense of collaboration here that is pretty special. On any given day there might be a polymer chemist, a cellular biologist, a regulatory specialist, and a neurosurgeon in my lab working with me on a project. This smattering of specialties coming together is very easy and allows for big crazy ideas to form and actually get done. We all want to think big, but we also want to see these projects have an impact as soon as possible and we do this on a regular basis now. 

 I might not be as passionate about what I do if I was somewhere else. We have something very special here, which is a drive toward innovation. Everyone I talk to here is overflowing with ideas and energy to develop better solutions, techniques, and tools. So I feel very much at home and comfortable, which makes taking on and moving through big ideas easy and second nature. 

When I’m not at work, I enjoy...

Hahaha I've got wayyy too many hobbies. Architecture, skiing, mountain biking, camping, traveling, guitar/mandolin, hang-gliding, hockey, trail running, bee keeping, eventing/dressage (horse riding), curling, and sampling microbrews to name just a few. I'm a pretty typical Coloradan in that way. Though, I really love my time on horseback. From the time I get to the barn to when I leave, there is something to learn and it's honest. Horses know everything about how my week has been from the moment I walk into the stable and react to it. They are so smart. But there is nothing better than being able to connect with these animals, care for them, and play. My version of heaven is jumping a 17-hand tall horse at full gallop.  

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Topics: Faculty