Printing a Better Operation

Cutting-edge technology is helping physicians at Brigham and Women's Hospital better plan and prep for face transplant surgeries.

brigham and women's hospital 3d printing

Photograph by Toan Trinh

Doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have been pioneers in the world of face transplants, performing seven so far. Now, cutting-edge technology is helping those physicians better plan and prep for the complex surgery.

This past January, the hospital announced that Frank Rybicki, former director of its Applied Imaging Science Laboratory, and plastic surgeon E. J. Caterson had developed 3-D printed models of two patients’ skeletal structures and, crucially, their overlying soft tissue. “We used to be able to just print bones, but now a whole new set of technologies are allowing us to simulate tissue types like blood vessels and skin,” says Rybicki, who notes that the models help surgeons determine donor-recipient compatibility and let them practice technique before the actual operation, leading to more-accurate results as well as shorter operating times. The models are also useful in monitoring a patient’s progress once the surgery is complete, he adds. After all, “there’s no better way to understand the anatomy you’re operating on than to hold it in your hand,” Rybicki says.