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Medical Breakthroughs: 3-D Printing, Now for Faces!


If you’re familiar with 3D printers, you already know that they have miraculous applications in medicine. We’re happy to share news on one of the most revolutionary uses of 3D printers to date: recreating life-size models of patients’ heads to assist in the planning of face transplantation surgery.

Physicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the United States performed that country’s first full-face transplantation in 2011. Subsequently, they have completed four additional transplants on patients who had lost some or all of their faces as a result of injury or disease.

“This is a complex surgery, and its success is dependent on surgical planning. Our study demonstrated that if you use this model and hold the skull in your hand, there is no better way to plan the procedure.”Dr Frank J. Rybicki, Director, Brigham & Women’s Hospital

CT to 3D Visualisation for Facial Transplant Patients

Prior to their procedures, transplant recipients underwent preoperative cat scans (CT) with 3D visualisation. The CT images of each patient’s head were segmented and processed using revolutionary new software customised for this specific purpose.  Doctors used the images to create specialised data files to input into the printer to create a fully realised 3D model.

“You can spin, rotate and scroll through as many CT images as you want, but there’s no substitute for having the real thing in your hand.  The ability to work with the model gives you an unprecedented level of reassurance and confidence in the procedure.” – Dr Frank J Rybicki

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.  Knowing the challenges they would be facing and having a model at the ready to provide on-the-spot information helped surgeons reduce the total procedure time.

3D Imaging for Facial Transplants in the Surgical Suite

Even with the benefit of 3D imaging and printing, the entire transplant procedure can last as long as 25 hours. However, the time during which the patient’s blood flow had to be stopped (to make the actual vascular connections from the donor face to the recipient) typically took as little as an hour.

“If there are absent or missing bony structures needed for reconstruction, we can make modifications based on the 3-D printed model prior to the actual transplantation, instead of taking the time to do alterations during ischemia time,” Dr.Rybicki said. “The 3-D model is important for making the transplant cosmetically appealing.”

3D Printing for Jaw Reconstruction

Facilitating complex face-transplant surgery is one of the ways that 3D printers are transforming medicine. The machines are also being eyed as tools for relatively minor surgeries such as jaw reconstruction.

“In most cases when a jaw is destroyed doctors must use a piece of rib or leg bone to replace the missing jaw. A 3D printer could help surgeons cut out a more precise piece of bone.” – Medical Daily