3D-Printed Skulls May Better Prepare Doctors For Nose Surgery And Other Cranial Operations
The 3D-printed skulls created by the University of Virginia (UVA) may come disturbingly close to the uncanny valley — a theoretical dividing line which says the more human-like a replica becomes, the more disturbing it feels — but they’re proving to be a boon to both the future doctors of tomorrow and the patients they’ll someday treat.
Medical residents at UVA use these skulls to train themselves in the art of nasal endoscopy, a perhaps indelicate procedure that requires a long camera-fitted device to be inserted through the nose in order to get a closer look at various internal areas like the sinuses. Whereas residents would have first tested out their exploring skills on each other or by seeing it performed in front of them, the lifelike skull — its blueprint derived from the MRI and CT scans of actual patients — offers more room for trial and error.
“The models allow students, residents and doctors to see, feel and understand dimensions of real human geometry,” said Dwight Dart, a design lab engineer at the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Rapid Prototyping 3D Printing Lab, in a UVA news release. Dart teamed up with Dr. Robert Reed, an otolaryngology (ear and throat) resident, and Dr. Jose Gurrola II, a nose specialist at UVA, to develop the skulls.
And while the relatively cheap and easy-to-produce skulls were originally intended to help trainees in the otolaryngology department, they’re available to anyone in related fields like neurosurgery. “This allows our UVA trainees to gain significant endoscopy experience early on and throughout their career,” said Gurrola.
The University of Virginia's 3D-printed skulls are a little creepy, but they're helping train the future ear, nose, and throat doctors of tomorrow.Photo courtesy of YouTube.com
In recent years, 3D-printing technology has allowed doctors a wide berth of advances previously unimaginable, from creating precise throat splints that enabled three newborns to breathe again, toreplicated vertebra that saved a cancer patient from becoming fully paralyzed. Elsewhere, 3D printing was recently used to reconstruct the top half of a 3-year-old Chinese girl’s skull, following surgery to treat a rare condition that caused her head to balloon up to four times its normal size. While the lab’s latest innovation may be not as immediately life-saving, Dart believes it only highlights the seemingly limitless potential of the technology. “3-D printing is going to revolutionize medicine,” he said.
Though the skulls are already fitted with a face, Gurrola and his colleagues would eventually like them to become even more humanlike, attaching sensors and fluid flow lines to better approximate the oftentimes slimy and sensitive environment that is our nose.
Provided that they don’t choose to gift them with any sort of speaking or eye movement capability — and descend even further into the valley — the preparation provided by UVA’s 3D skulls will undoubtedly be welcomed by these trainees’ future ear, nose, and throat patients.