by Heather Mackey

GPU technology is transforming medical imaging and surgical education by enabling doctors and medical students to see inside the human body and train for complex procedures on virtual surgery simulators. That was the takeaway from the “Virtual Surgery” presentation by Aaron Oliker of BioDigital Systems and New York University.

Communicating complex surgical instructions was the idea behind one of BioDigital’s first simulations, a 3D animation on how to correct cleft palates. This common birth defect affects 1 in 600 children and is prevalent in the developing world. The problem is, not enough local doctors know how to perform the life-changing surgery. Oliker helped create the first surgical animation of a cleft procedure – an animation that is now on DVDs and has been distributed to thousands of surgeons, through the nonprofit organization SmileTrain. “The surgery is a geometric puzzle,” said Oliker, and a key to understanding it is to see it unfold in 3D.

To create its simulations, BioDigital gathers data from CT scans. One example Oliker showed – of a wrist moving through its range of motions – was easily 30 to 40 million polygons. GPUs are essential to taking this data and creating the 3D simulations (BioDigital uses a Quadro 3700 to create its simulations, which can be run on a PC with a consumer-level GPU).

BioDigital also creates simulators for complex surgical procedures, allowing students to follow along from beginning to end, and see what can happen when things go wrong. Session attendees got to see a surgery to correct a skull defect broken down into clickable steps that showed 3D animation of the procedure at the same time that a video inset showed the actual surgery. “It’s like a living book,” Oliker said. Medical students learning from the surgery are able to view the simulation using NVIDIA 3D Vision kits.

One of the most interesting examples was Oliker’s demonstration of a haptics device that simulated anesthetic injection in dental procedures. While an animation displayed a virtual patient (with a big, virtual needle), Oliker showed how he could manipulate the device and get tactile feedback on needle position and underlying anatomy.

The presentation brought home the challenges in training doctors and standardizing certain surgical procedures, but also the excitement of where the field is going (for instance, real-time surgical reconstructions). Audience members applauded at the end (perhaps out of relief that future dentists will have BioDigital’s haptics training before they start seeing patients), and stayed to talk to Oliker for additional Q&A.