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New engineering methods turn medical scans into anatomical replicas

* 3 April 2003 *

New engineering methods turn medical scans into anatomical replicas

Medical scans give us an idea of what is happening to our bodies. Now a University of Sussex engineer has developed a way of using these scans to make accurate plastic replicas of our insides.

Dr Panos Diamantopoulos is confident that his three-dimensional models, manufactured by a process known as rapid prototyping, will become invaluable tools to health professionals for diagnosis and surgical procedures and in the design of medical appliances.
"Medical anatomical models have been demonstrated to help understanding and awareness of medical problems," he says. "They can also contribute to faster intervention, reduce operation time, minimise patient discomfort, improve treatment success rate, increase the speed of recovery and limit cost."

The process begins with gathering computer-generated medical images (from CT, MRI or Ultrasound). Using specific computer software, anatomical tissue is then identified and a three-dimensional image is reconstructed as a virtual model. The virtual model can then be turned into a physical model using a laser machine that draws the model onto acrylic resin. Where the laser hits the resin, the resin solidifies.

Dr Diamantopoulos describes this as an integration of medical imaging, computer aided design, and rapid manufacturing. "Other universities are working on medical modelling, but we are the only ones bringing engineering design technologies into the clinical environment," he says.

It currently takes a few minutes to create accurate three-dimensional virtual models from the medical images, and a few hours for the model to be produced physically. Dr Diamantopoulos expects the technology to advance rapidly so that a physical model could be produced as quickly as a paper document is printed by a common computer printer.

"Although doctors can get plenty of information from medical scans, having a model would help them to have a more complete idea of what is going on with the patient," he points out. "For example we can reproduce an accurate model of a brain tumour, which the neurosurgeon could use in order to know exactly which parts of the brain are affected. In the future it will probably be possible to use bio-compatible models, which could be used as implants."

The above work has led to the development of the Biomedical Modelling Unit and current research is internationally recognised. It is being carried out in collaboration with Materialise NV, a company based in Belgium that commercialises relevant computer software. Research work is also ongoing with a number of universities, hospitals and companies, as well as government organisations such as DSTL, a research agency of the Ministry of Defence.

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