Hollywood technologies help victims of severe facial injuries

By Staff Writer • Published: September 19th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The same technology that helps DreamWorks Pictures bring tender, jovial — even human — facial expressions to an animated green ogre named Shrek is also bringing hope to victims of serious facial injuries.

Reconstructing the delicate features of a face can be impossible with traditional surgical methods. Elements we all take for granted — skin, muscles, bones, blood vessels and nerves — work together in the face to form a smile or express empathy. But they are also important for even more basic human functions, such as breathing, speaking and swallowing.

Since the first face transplant in 2005, doctors have pushed technology to build faces that return patients’ quality of life and give them more confidence in social interactions. According to a new study, one of the latest strategies combines conventional medical imaging with the sort of 3-D modeling techniques that make the toys in Toy Story look not only lifelike, but humanlike.

Typically, prior to a face transplant, medical staffs make plastic or plaster models of the face based on medical imaging, such as a 3-D C-T scan or an angiographic image, which shows how the blood vessels and organs connect on the face. In this new study, led by a plastic surgery resident at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, researchers created a 3-D model that integrated all available forms of medical imaging, from C-T and angiography to M-R-I and high-definition tractography. The final product allowed surgeons to build a road map to the patient’s head and neck and create a new face that essentially fit like a puzzle piece.

Face reconstruction technology is advancing quickly, partly because of funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, which hopes the transplants can help injured war veterans. And the prospects for ongoing success reach, as Buzz Lightyear might say, to infinity and beyond.