Rice University in Houston, Texas, has received a grant for $5 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The money is enabling the university to conduct research into creating patient-specific, digital and 3D printed, models used to predict and plan the outcome of invasive cancer surgeries.

The specific area of focus, for its critical position in relation to the spine and the hips, is in models of the pelvis, and will be conducted with the help of mechanical engineering researcher Professor B.J. Fregly.

Professor B.J. Fregly and a digram of skeletal computational modeling, key to his research. Image via: eng.ufl.edu

Professor B.J. Fregly and a digram of skeletal computational modeling, key to his research. Image via: eng.ufl.edu

Improving the outcome and recovery time of operations

In a statement from Rice University, Professor Fregly explains the utility of this specific research saying,

Custom pelvic prostheses have the potential to both maximize walking ability and minimize recovery time, but they are not available clinically because of low reliability. That’s an engineering problem that Rice is in a good position to tackle.

Fregly’s expertise is in building accurate 3D digital models of bones in the body. He says, “My research program has always had a heavy orthopedic, human movement prediction and computational treatment design focus”. He then adds that collaboration with the surgeon Valerae Lewis, chair of the Department of Orthopedic Oncology at MD Anderson, has been key to linking his work to diagnosis of bone cancers.

A 3 part digital approach 

The overall hope of the program, according to Fregly, is “to improve the postsurgical functional outcome and recovery time for pelvic sarcoma patients in the Texas Medical Center, regardless of which surgical method a patient receives”. 

This will be made possible by the combined effort of three areas of expertise: patient-specific 3D imaging and data collection with Scott Tashman, director of the Biomotion Lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center; data-based 3D model creation on Fregly’s part; and custom 3D printed prosthesis fabrication by Fred Higgs, director of the Particle Flow and Tribology Lab at Rice.

An example of a 3D modeled pelvis with muscle anatomy. Image via digitallab3d on Sketchfab

An example of a 3D modeled pelvis with muscle anatomy. Image via digitallab3d on Sketchfab

Fregly adds,

This project could not have happened without a collaborative team. I’m pulling it together and leading the modelling, but without Valerae Lewis we would have no clinical problem to address and no patients. Without Scott Tashman, we couldn’t do pretreatment testing or assess how patients are progressing. And we need Fred Higgs’ expertise to create custom implants using additive manufacturing. It really will take all of us to make this project go.

A hub for 3D printing research

Rice University is also one participant in the National Institutes of Health’s $6.25 million center for 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering. In this specialist center, Rice will focus on 3D bioprinting of scaffold structures, and collaborate closely with the University of Maryland and the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Featured image: Cancer Cells Dividing, Biology, McDougal Littell, 2008

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