August 01, 2014

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Nurse, hand me the scanner

Justin Toland

3D data acquisition and the medical profession go back a long way. It was 1986 when the US National Library of Medicine instigated its Visible Human Project, with the goal of creating anatomically-detailed three-dimensional representations of complete male and female bodies. By the mid-to-late '90s this had fetched up in educational products such as the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf's VOXEL-MAN 3D-Navigator. 

Today, 3D is widely used in medicine and particularly in orthotics and dentistry, where chairside CAD/CAM systems allow the dentist or dental technician to scan the teeth of the patient and produce a bespoke crown, veneer, onlay or inlay using a CNC milling machine or 3D printer (you may recall me writing about the milling/printing debate last time out).

Dental analysis is one of the areas covered by Simpleware, a UK firm that specializes in “converting 3D image data into robust, accurate computational models for biomedical research.” Applying the techniques of image processing, mesh generation and simulation, the company enables users to “design patient specific implants and medical solutions” also for hip replacements, tracheotomy airflow and the analysis of low velocity impacts on the human head

 
The hip bone's connected to the ...

Other developments in 3D laser scanning include the rapid prototyping of compression masks for burns victims, something which has been achieved by the company CinMed using Rapidform XOS. Nursing staff use a handheld scanner to obtain the data needed to create a compression mask quickly without touching the patient and risking further trauma and infection. (The traditional - and time-consuming - method required anesthetizing the patient and taking a physical mould of his or her face). According to CinMed and Rapidform XOS, “Outcomes have improved as the compression mask’s tight fit supports a faster recovery by encouraging thinner scar tissue that resembles the patient’s original skin, while the medication inhibits infection and keeps the new tissue moist and pliable.” 

Here's another possibility - diagnosis. Using four synchronized cameras and a moving subject, the Canadian company PhotoModeler is able to convert photographs into “accurate, high-quality 3D models and [point cloud] measurements” that can be used for, among other things, spotting curvature of the spine

3D printing is also starting to find applications in the medical sector. One exciting new possibility making headlines last week is for the creation of artificial blood vessels. According to the BBC, Germany's Fraunhofer Institute has achieved a major breakthrough in the quest to create artificial tissue and organs for transplant. The institute has developed synthetic capillaries that will allow lab-made organs to function. These prototype artificial blood vessels have been created by combining 3D printing technology with two-photon polymerisation - shining intense laser beams onto the material to stimulate the molecules in a very small focus point. 

The material then becomes an elastic solid, allowing the researchers to create highly precise and elastic structures that would be able to interact with a human body's natural tissue. 

Dr Gunter Tovar, who is leading the project (dubbed BioRap) says it is “establishing a basis for applying rapid prototyping to elastic and organic biomaterials.” Exciting and potentially life-saving stuff.

These and other examples suggest that, pretty soon, 3D laser scanners and 3D printers could be as routine a part of a doctor's equipment as the stethoscope and thermometer. 

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