Orlando Health surgeons use 3D printed fetal models to prepare for the in-utero procedure


PICTURE: Samer Elbabaa, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Orlando Health, shows parents-to-be Jocelyn and Jared Rodriguez a 3D printed model of their developing baby. Orlando Health surgeons use the models … view More

Photo credit: Orlando Health

(ORLANDO, Florida) – A state-of-the-art in-utero procedure enables surgeons to correct a birth defect in babies’ development in the womb. However, having surgery on a mother and her unborn child at the same time can be challenging and unpredictable. To provide even more information to their world-class surgeons prior to surgery, Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies uses MRI and ultrasound imaging, as well as 3D printing technology, to create a uniquely detailed model that enables surgeons to plan procedures in advance identify potential obstacles and reduce the risk of surgery.

The models are currently used to schedule an in-utero surgery to repair spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spinal cord does not close normally during development. The disease can cause lifelong neurological disabilities, including an inability to walk.

“The 3D reconstruction of the fetus can really educate the surgeon about the real shape, size and location of the spinal lesion and prepare the surgeon to provide the appropriate equipment for the surgical treatment of this condition,” said Samer Elbabaa. MD, Medical Director, Pediatric Neurosurgery, Orlando Health. “It’s a level of detail that we can’t see in traditional imaging, but it’s extremely valuable in those cases where we can’t really see the defect before surgery.”

To create the models, Orlando Health works with the experienced 3D printers at Digital Anatomy Simulations for Healthcare, LLC (DASH) who developed the technology. While many have seen rough, monochromatic objects 3D printed, DASH has taken the process to the next level, developing technology to enhance MRI and ultrasound images taken during pregnancy to reconstruct precise curves and edges . They can then print a high-resolution model in multiple colors and materials so surgeons can see details such as skeletal structure, nerve and vascular anatomy, and fluid sacs in the spine and brain caused by spina bifida.

The models are currently in use as part of the hospital’s open fetal surgery program, which has performed 25 procedures since early 2018. Orlando Health is one of only 12 facilities in the US and the only one in Florida that can perform this type of surgery.

“The fetal models not only help surgeons plan incisions and repairs to the defect, but also reduce surgical time to limit exposure of the developing baby,” said Jack Stubbs, President and CEO of DASH. “We are able to create models that are extremely realistic by taking a batch of two-dimensional images taken during pregnancy and enhancing them to get a better visualization of what the fetus really looks like.”

The 3D printed models give surgeons a clearer picture of what to expect during fetal surgery and allow surgeons to better explain the baby’s condition to parents and show them how it will be treated. For first-time parents Jared and Jocelyn Rodriguez, they were more confident about moving forward with the operation.

“At first we just thought it was a model showing the same type of disease our baby was diagnosed with, but then Dr. Elbabaa told us it was made using our daughter’s 20-week MRI” said Jared Rodriguez. “We could see the brain and the spine and I looked down at it and thought, ‘I’m holding my daughter? That’s pretty great.'”

The Rodriguezes say that while they are prepared for their daughter’s challenges, they are glad that this technological advancement is helping to give her a healthier future.

“With every appointment we go to, we get more and more good news and it already shows how strong she is,” said Jocelyn Rodriguez. “We know this surgery will give her the best shot for a normal lifestyle and we look forward to seeing the positive results as she grows.”

Surgeons see successful results from fetal surgery for spina bifida. Most babies who undergo the procedure have significantly fewer health concerns and better functionality than those who undergo surgery after they are born. Some of the first patients are now learning to walk on their own. Experts hope to expand the program to model other types of birth defects in the uterus that may be treated by fetal surgery in the future.


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Janet Smith