When you think about transplant surgery, chances are good you think of things like organ or limb transplants. While not technically routine, they do happen with some regularity.
However, face transplants are much less common. It’s performed in a number of different situations where a patient’s face has been severely damaged in auto accidents and the like.
Face transplants are a very complex surgery, and has to be done just right and now 3D printing technology is being used to help make surgeons’ jobs easier.
How It Works
Full face transplants are relatively new. In fact, no such surgery had been performed in the US prior to 2011.
As such, it’s a young procedure and while surgeons who have performed it previously have a good understanding of what goes into creating a successful outcome, that can’t be said for surgeons without hands-on experience (and there are very few surgeons with those qualities).
One of the trickiest things about face transplant surgery is planning. A wide range of possibilities exists here, from the need to modify existing facial structures to reconstruction and more.
By using 3D printing to create an accurate model of the patient’s skull and facial bones, surgeons can better plan and prepare for a successful process.
How It’s Done
Patients in need of facial transplant surgery must undergo significant CT scanning. This is combined with 3D visualization to build a life-size skull model of the patient.
In the study that determined the technique’s effectiveness, CT file segments were converted into a different format with custom software and then sent on to a 3D printer, which then builds a complete model of the face and head so that surgeons can make accurate plans.
While the entire procedure might last up to 25 hours or even longer, the connection period for vascular tissues usually lasts only about an hour. During this time, the patient’s blood flow (to the face) must be stopped.
In previous surgeries, any bone reconstruction or modification the needed to be done had to occur during this period, and it was often unknown before beginning the surgery.
With 3D modeling technology, surgeons can determine beforehand if there is the need for any modification and either plan for it during the transplant procedure, or possibly even perform many modifications ahead of time.
The benefits aren’t only for patients in need of immediate face transplant surgery, either. The technology will be used to broaden the understanding of surgeons learning these techniques. Currently, full face transplants have only been performed five times in the US, so the number of surgeons with a full understanding of the intricacies here is very small.
By using 3D printing and modeling techniques to create face and skull reproductions, more surgeons can be trained, and can be educated accurately and prepared for the delicacy and significant duration of the procedure.
This is just one more way in which 3D printers are showing their inestimable value to the human race.