How 3D imaging is saving lives

The history of medicine has long been characterized by incremental advances in our knowledge of the human body and disease. Many of the most important medical advances have stemmed from technological innovations, which improved our ability to peer deep within the body to unravel its myriad secrets.

The magnifying glass, the microscope, the discovery and characterization of the electromagnetic spectrum, the discovery of X-rays and the subsequent development of radiography, improvements in computing — all of these have contributed to innovations in medical imaging, while advancing medical knowledge and helping to improve treatment. Medical imaging is now an integral — and indispensable — component of the art and science of medicine.

From 2D to 3D

Within less than a century, radiography progressed from a poorly understood novelty to an indispensable medical imaging technique. The development of sufficiently powerful computers in the 1970s led to the expansion of X-ray imaging from a relatively limited two-dimensional medium to a more comprehensive three-dimensional one.

By integrating multiple 2D radiographic images ("slices") into a 3D image, computerized tomography (CT) enables doctors to view a comprehensive image of the musculoskeletal system. The use of radioactive tracers and contrast dyes has facilitated the fine-tuning of this technology, allowing imaging of relatively minor anomalies that might otherwise go undetected.

More recently, converging technologies — such as advanced computing and nuclear magnetic resonance — have been harnessed to provide detailed, 3D images of the soft tissues deep within the body, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Still, other examples include the use of ultrasound and other modalities, such as molecular imaging using positron emission scanning (PET) or single-photon emission computed tomography
(SPECT) devices.

Today, it's difficult to imagine a world in which it was impossible to be certain where, or if, a fracture had occurred. It's all but impossible to imagine treating cancer effectively without the aid of detailed 3D imaging studies to determine the location, gross characteristics and progression of any tumors within the body.

Accelerating Innovations and Refinements

MRI and CT are familiar technologies that are crucial to the practice of modern medicine. Today, 3D imaging technology is advancing at an ever-accelerating pace. Resolution continues to improve, for instance, whether you're talking about ultrasound or other forms of 3D imaging. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced late last year it developed an algorithm that exploits light polarization to improve the depth resolution of conventional 3D imaging devices by 1,000-fold.

Molecular imaging also represents an improvement in resolution. Older, more familiar technologies are increasingly being integrated with emerging, complementary technologies. The introduction of viable 3D printers, for example, has already yielded medical applications. Three-dimensional scans are used to guide the creation of 3D printed implants, for example.

Another example includes the integration of 3D imaging with virtual reality (VR) technology. Already, medical educators and surgeons in training are using VR for teaching purposes, while VR representations of specific patient anatomical features have been used to plan and execute especially challenging microsurgical procedures.

VR, 3D Animation and More

With the recent introduction of relatively affordable, consumer-oriented VR headsets and platforms, such as Gear VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, it seems increasingly likely that the combination of 3D imaging and VR technology will not only gain acceptance in medicine, but perhaps even become as indispensable as CT and MRI are today.

Emerging applications based on these technologies include the development of biologically compatible materials for 3D "bioprinting," which involves the use of stem cells and biodegradable polymers as substrates for the biofabrication of anatomical structures suitable for implantation. Proponents point to exciting possibilities for regenerative medicine — including tissue repair and even organ transplantation.

Yet another use of 3D in medicine involves 3D animation for applications such as medical student and patient education, and the marketing of medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Obviously, this innovation significantly expands the effectiveness of more traditional 2D medical illustrations by bringing medical concepts, structures, processes and procedures to full-color, 3D life.

Author bio: Nic Widerhold is the owner of Ghost Productions, a 3D medical animation studio. His team of professionals focuses on creating custom medical animations and illustrations to help the medical industry.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.​

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