3-D models give physicians an opportunity to plan and test techniques before performing face transplant surgery.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) is now using 3-D printing to help physicians prepare for face transplant surgeries and to help monitor the progress of their patients after face transplant surgery.

Dr. Frank J. Rybicki, Director of the BWH Applied Imaging Science Laboratory and Dr. E.J. Caterson from the Department of Surgery have developed 3-D models – before and after surgery – of the skeletal structures and the overlying soft tissue of two BWH face transplant recipients thus far. The precise 3-D models, which are based on CAT scan images, give physicians a more thorough, and tangible, representation of a face transplant recipient’s facial tissue.

“The tissues that are 3-D printed in one piece are much better than photographs,” says Caterson. “They provide a better understanding of a patient’s facial structure than any two-dimensional representation can.”

Along with the increased visualization that it offers, the 3-D models also allow physicians to touch and manipulate synthetic skeletal and soft facial tissue that mirrors, in look and feel, the patient’s face. This gives physicians an opportunity to plan and test techniques before surgery, instead of developing plans during surgery. This ability to better understand the nuances of each patient’s facial structure and know what will work beforehand is expected to substantially shorten surgical time – a key factor in surgical success and patient recovery.

Rybicki’s team also has found that developing 3-D models after surgery, particularly of the soft tissue, can be helpful for monitoring a face transplant recipient’s progress. It can be a valuable tool for documenting and improving our understanding of the face transplant healing process, as well as for detecting and addressing any potential problems.

“Before this, we just used photographs,” explains Rybicki. “Now, with unprecedented accuracy, we can monitor how patients are progressing over time. It’s a remarkable technology.”

– Chris P.

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