3-D Printing Can Improve Face Transplants

Surgeons are using new, highly accurate 3-D printers to guide face transplantation operations, making the procedures faster and improving outcomes, according to a new report.

The face replicas made on these printers take into account bone grafts, metal plates and the underlying bone structure of the skull. They improve surgical planning, which ultimately makes the surgery much shorter, the report authors said.

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The new technique has already been used in several patients, including two high-profile face transplant patients — Carmen Tarleton, who was maimed by her husband and received a face transplant in 2013, and Dallas Wiens, who was the first person in the U.S. to receive a full face transplant, in 2011.

The surgeries have dramatically improved the lives of the patients, the researchers said.

“They went from having no face and no features at all, to being able to talk and eat and breathe properly,” said Dr. Frank Rybicki, a radiologist and the director of the Applied Imaging Science Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who presented the findings Dec. 1 at the meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

For the patients, face transplantation is often the end of a long journey.

“Typically, by the time they come to us, they’ve had 20 or 30 surgeries already, just to save their lives,” Rybicki told Live Science.

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That means that patients may have plates, screws, bone grafts and dozens of other small modifications in their faces, and the new face has to fit perfectly around these. Three-dimensional printing allows the team to see exactly where these elements are, making the surgery — which can take up to 25 hours — go more quickly and smoothly, Rybicki said.

The team printed out the soft tissue for Tarleton, whose estranged husband threw industrial-strength lye (a strong chemical used in soap making) on her face, according to the report.

The lye “literally burned off all the skin and all the squishy stuff in the face, and just left the bone,” which was covered by a paper-thin flap of tissue, Rybicki said.

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