3D printing for better human face transplants

Scientists in UK are using new, highly accurate 3D printers to make the procedures of complex face transplantation operations faster and better.

Using computed tomography (CT) and 3-D printing technology, researchers are recreating life-size models of patients’ heads to assist in surgery.

“Physicians at performed the US’s first full-face transplantation in 2011 and have subsequently completed four additional face transplants,” researchers said.

The procedure is performed on patients who have lost some or all of their face as a result of injury or disease.

A research team led by Frank J Rybicki, radiologist and director of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston assessed the clinical impact of using 3-D printed models of the recipient’s head in the planning of face transplantation surgery.

Each of the transplant recipients underwent preoperative CT with 3-D visualization. To build each life-size skull model, the CT images of the transplant recipient’s head were segmented and processed using customized software, creating specialized data files that were input into a 3-D printer.

Doctors said, the 3-D printed model helps to prepare the facial structures so when the actual transplantation occurs, the surgery goes more smoothly.

Although the entire transplant procedure lasts as long as 25 hours, the actual vascular connections from the donor face to the recipient typically takes approximately one hour, during which time the patient’s blood flow must be stopped.

Rybicki said, If there are absent or missing bony structures needed for reconstruction, modifications based on the 3-D printed model prior to the actual transplantation can be made instead of taking the time to do alterations during ischemia time.

The 3-D model is important for making the transplant cosmetically appealing, he added.

The researchers said they also used the models in the operating room to increase the surgeons’ understanding of the anatomy of the recipient’s face during the procedure.

Senior surgeons and radiologists involved in the five face transplantations agreed that the 3-D printed models provided superior pre-operative data and allowed complex anatomy and bony defects to be better appreciated, reducing total procedure time.

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