Surgeons and students have been slicing into spare dead bodies for centuries to hone their skills, but new technology could replace increasingly scarce cadavers.
Feeling like tissue and bone to the touch, but without the gag factor and bacteria of dead flesh, 3D-printed body parts could offer a clean and consistent alternative.
Adelaide-based medical technology firm Fusetec uses detailed scans to create body parts for surgeons to prep for complex operations, as well as trays of identical parts for advanced surgery training.
Several years ago, Fusetec was challenged by world-leading sinus surgeon Peter Wormald to design a soft tissue, fully operable sinus trainer.
Professor Wormald, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery at Adelaide and Flinders universities, wanted to advance surgical training by taking a technological leap forward from the watch-and-learn approach.
Fusetec’s work meant that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic they were able to work with Prof Wormald to rapidly create models for virus testers so they could learn where their probes should go.
“I’d like to think we helped save a few nasal passages over that time,” founder and CEO of Fusetec, Mark Roe, said.
Sammuel Sobey, who studied mechanical and sports engineering, heads up research and development at Fusetec where theories about advanced manufacturing are being turned into simulated human anatomy.
Dr Sobey says he’s always had an interest in human health and was keen to help improve surgical training.
“For me it’s about combining engineering and medicine together but also caring for people,” he told AAP.
“Surgeons are better, they become more confident in themselves but that also means patients have much higher rates of recovery and successful surgery.”
The realistic and anatomically accurate bone, skin, and muscle structures are designed to be safer and easier to obtain – and dispose of – than actual human cadavers.
Anatomical examination – where a body or parts of a body such as organs, are cut apart to allow a person to look at the inside – is covered by its own law in each Australian jurisdiction.
Tightly regulated, universities operate body donation programs and an anatomy licence is required.
A 3D-printed version enables students and surgeons to practice complex surgery on tumours, broken bones, or defective heart valves before embarking on the actual hours-long, painstaking and life-saving surgery.
To make the gadgets, scans are fed into the “black box engineering” and manufactured with material that replicates bone, skin, fat and muscle, Dr Sobey said.
The team started with simpler models, which didn’t move but felt right, and then fine-tuned them.
“The next step is to get the heart moving, which is going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth tackling,” Dr Sobey said.
“The closer we can get it to a normal, living person, the better the experience for the user.”
Students could potentially learn using the same model and be consistently graded.
“The traditional method is to use cadavers and obviously that’s a dead person who has donated their body to science, and every person is different,” he said.
Working around COVID-19 and an international travel ban, University of Adelaide experts last year used Fusetec 3D models to deliver remote sinus surgical training to surgeons in Japan.
Alkis Psaltis and Prof Wormald from Adelaide Medical School, along with Masanobu Suzuki offshore, trained more than 200 surgeons.
Simulated procedures were performed at Hokkaido University while others throughout Asia watched the course online.
The two professors would usually hold an in-person advanced surgical workshop in Adelaide, typically on cadavers.
Sinus tumour and bleeding models are being developed, and more remote courses are planned.
Michael Sharpe is director of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, which helped nurture Fusetec and its new $6.8 million Advanced Surgical Training Clinic in Adelaide.
As its name suggests, the firm has fused technology with medical practices to improve training and potentially save lives, he said.
“Fusetec’s locally manufactured medical devices and world-leading training facility demonstrate the ability of local manufacturing capability to solve emerging issues and drive global change.”
Because the cadavers are customisable, surgical teams can order specific models and use them at the facility to support the planning of high-risk surgeries.
The high-tech centre can also be used to program and train surgical robot systems and support preparation for remote surgeries.