New 3-D printer at NUH shaping up well as surgery aid

SINGAPORE - Surgeons at the National University Hospital (NUH) are using a new 3-D printer which lets them hold an exact model of their patient's face in their hands so they can shape reconstructions and implants accurately.

Previously, the surgeons needed a good eye to see if the two sides of the face - including the cheek bones, eye sockets and jaw line - were symmetrical when they shaped these implants to replace broken bones.

NUH spent $40,000 on the prototype printer in January and is now the first hospital in Asia to have the whole 3-D process, from modelling right up to printing, under one roof. Together with the operating software, the whole suite cost $300,000.

Before this, the hospital used to outsource its printing to private companies and the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Engineering. Since 2008, it has been using computer modelling software to create 3-D virtual models of patient's skulls to aid reconstruction and navigation efforts during surgery.

With the printer, surgeons can now follow the contours of the skull model. Their patients include victims of road accidents and violence, and those left deformed by cancerous tumours.

Professional dancer Hannah Maria Mohamed Sakban is one of 15 patients who have benefited from the full suite of 3-D technology services so far. A motorcycle accident in February severely damaged the bones on the left side of her face.

The 21-year-old spent the night before her Feb 7 operation crying from fear. But she recalled: "I felt more assured after having the procedure explained to me using the 3-D model."

She has even kept the model of her skull as a memento.

Associate Professor Lim Thiam Chye, head and senior consultant at NUH's division of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery, explained that bringing the whole array of 3-D technology under one roof would improve the turnaround time for treatments.

Surgeons can reconstruct faces with an accuracy of up to 99 per cent, even for cases with only half of the facial skeleton intact.

"The skills of even the most capable surgeon can be enhanced with technology to provide better care and outcomes for patients," said Prof Lim.

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