Model bodies are key to precision surgery

Technology developed to make precision tools for industry is being used to create artificial bodies for surgeons training in keyhole surgery techniques.

Cardiff University’s Manufacturing Engineering Centre is developing the anatomically accurate bodies for Bristol-based firm Limbs and Things.

The team is working with specialist firm Polymer Associates to develop silicon-like materials that reproduce the proper- ties and touch of skin and human soft tissue, said Julien Etienne, project engineer at the MEC. ‘Our main focus at the moment is in finding and testing materials that correctly mimic human tissues.’ Future models may also contain beating hearts, he said.

The engineers have already created 3D virtual bodies, which will be used to produce physical prototypes using injection moulding and rapid tooling technology. The first of these prototypes, due to be produced by June, will then be evaluated by surgeons across Europe. Once approval is given the team will begin producing the final parts of the body, such as organs and bones.

Trainee medics are currently taught in a similar way to apprentices, monitoring surgeons during operations and gradually becoming more involved in the process until they are working with real patients. This process would be much more reliable if trainees did not have to practise on real people, said Etienne. ‘If trainees can practise on a model without the stress of dealing with a person’s life, the more comfortable and reliable the process will be. It would then become a routine procedure.’

The use of rapid manufacturing techniques should also enable the team to produce the artificial bodies in large numbers, making them more affordable for teaching hospitals. ‘At the moment models are quite expensive, so medical schools are reluctant to invest in them. If we can produce affordable models that are of a high quality, the teaching schools should be very interested,’ he said.

The project team used reverse engineering techniques to create the bodies, basing the design on the finished article – human beings – from which they produced their surgical trainer. Two people, a male and female, were scanned from the neck to upper thigh using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging tunnel scanner. These scans were then used to produce a CAD version of the organs and skeletal structure.