It’s not every day that an undergraduate class influences the way surgeons prepare for operations. But that’s exactly what happened with a freshman bioengineering class co-taught by then-PhD student Jason Caffrey ’11, MS ’13‚ and professor Robert Sah.
As part of the Jacobs School of Engineering course, students used CT scans from UC San Diego Health patients who had undergone surgery to print 3-D models of their bone fractures. By the project’s end, Caffrey and Sah wondered if the bone models their students made could be put to use beyond the classroom.
The pair partnered with Dr. Vidyadhar Upasani, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital, to investigate the potential benefits of flipping their process to produce 3-D models that surgeons could then practice on before an operation.
In an initial study, Upasani operated on 10 patients with slipped capital femoral epiphysis, the most common hip disorder found in children ages nine to 16. For half of the patients, Upasani used a 3-D model to prepare and plan the surgery beforehand. As an additional control group, two other surgeons operated on five patients with the same condition without using models.
The results? Procedures were 38 to 45 minutes shorter for those modeled beforehand, amounting to a 25 percent shorter surgery time. This reduction translates to at least $2,700 in savings per operation, researchers say, and it also reduces the time patients are exposed to radiation from the X-ray fluoroscopy beam that traditionally helps guide the surgeon.
“Being able to practice on these 3-D models is crucial,” says Dr. Upasani. “I’ve seen how beneficial 3-D models are; it’s now hard to plan surgeries without them.” Indeed, the results of the study were so positive that Rady Children’s orthopedics department has acquired its own 3-D printer.
A broader study looking at many institutions and many conditions is currently underway. And Caffrey, the engineering PhD student who organized the class materials and led the model development, is now working on his medical degree at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.