Sophisticated 3D modeling plays growing role in healthcare

Vendor partnerships speed production of models that help visualize procedures, engage patients.

Treating a pediatric patient who had undergone numerous procedures over 10 years, Dianna Bardo, MD, used a three-dimensional model as part of her explanation of what was causing the chronic condition and next steps in treating it.

The child’s mother looked at the model and Bardo’s explanations and said, “That’s the first time I’ve really understood the problem this clearly.”

Bardo’s story underscores the growing use of 3D models in care delivery, providing insights for patients, families and clinicians. Using radiological images as the foundation for constructing models, technological advances are producing rapid progress in the accuracy and usefulness of the finished product.

In addition, the latest in 3D printing technologies are enabling printers to produce multi-colored models, of varying textures—for example, creating models with soft surfaces that enable surgeons to experience the tactile “feel” of the organs they’ll be operating upon.

Highlighting the bright prospects for the use of 3D models, imaging technology companies are starting to partner with vendors that use high-tech printers and processes to create anatomically precise models of organs, brains and more.

For example, Royal Philips has announced agreements with 3D Systems and Stratasys, two technology vendors that specialize in 3D printing, which will enable hospitals that use Philips imaging offerings to more easily order 3D models from its systems.

In a similar move, Materialise, a provider of 3D printing services and software solutions, and Formlabs, a technology vendor in the 3D printing industry, are collaborating to offer solutions to hospitals that want to start an in-house 3D print lab. The new offering combines the Materialise Mimics inPrint medical imaging software with Formlabs’ desktop 3D printers.

Both initiatives show the increased attention that such detailed models are playing in planning and visualizing complicated surgeries, as well as better communicating the intricacies of procedures with patients and their families.

“We see a lot of promise in using 3D printing,” says Bardo, director of body MR and co-director of the 3D innovation lab at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “It’s really helpful for surgeons, who have had to look at three different planes of images and then try to reconstruct a 3D image in their heads.”

Detailed models are particularly important when handling cases of small infants and children, where body parts a small and medical interventions may involve procedures on tiny imperfections. “With an infant, an MRI may not show a good view of what’s going on because there may be fluid that blocks out” an important aspect of the image, she says. “Virtual 3D images can bring it all to life, and as I print it to a 3D image, I can see exactly what’s going on.”

Phoenix Children’s, which is a testing site for Philips imaging products, has been using the latest version of its IntelliSpace Portal, which has a visualization platform that embeds a 3D modeling application for creating and exporting models, which will give radiologists additional views to help build anatomical knowledge that could enhance clinical impact in reviewing complex multi-disciplinary cases.

The Philips portal will be able to send files to both 3D Systems and Stratasys manufacturing facilities for printing. Technicians at the plants who are versed in creating medical models then can work with clinicians ordering the models to fine-tune specifics of the model before it is created, says Kevin McAlea, executive vice president and chief operating officer for 3D Systems.

Speaking at an event sponsored by Philips at the Radiological Society of North America, McAlea says turnaround times on intricate 3D models are about a week.

Also See: Mount Sinai department builds 3D models in short order

The approach “is able to simplify and streamline physicians’ ability to get 3D printed models,” McAlea adds. “We’re seeing it applied to surgical simulation, surgical planning, device design and manufacturing, and even bioprinting.”

Models can be printed with hard materials or with soft pliable surfaces that mimic the texture of organs, enabling physicians to get a tactile sense of what they will be feeling when they perform procedures in the surgical theater.

Intricate 3D models already are proving their worth—they were widely used to plan out the separation of the brains of the conjoined McDonald twins last November at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. The separation procedure, craniopagus surgery, lasted 16 hours, followed by more hours of surgery to rebuild their skulls.

The ability to create 3D models “will allow radiologists to integrate with clinical care in a way that extends far beyond the (image) reading room,” says Kevin Lev, marketing director for the Philips division working on these applications. This approach will “allow physicians who may not be in the largest institutions that may not be able to afford a 3D printer” to order models on an as-needed basis.

Other uses for 3D capabilities lie ahead, such as enabling surgeons to visualize how much bone needs to be removed in a cancer procedure, or to create a mesh graft that could be covered with a patient’s own stem cells to create a replacement body part, Lev adds.

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