New Artificial Patients Aid in Medical Simulations


Peter Crump
Staff Writer

At the annual Global Pediatric Innovation Summit last week, Boston Children’s Hospital revealed two newly designed plastic model patients that have the look and feel of real people, including their internal anatomy. These new simulations will provide doctors and researchers with the ability to test and perform complex procedures beforehand with a degree of accuracy that could not be matched with older technology, thus reducing the risk and improving the outcomes for patients in the real procedures.

The new simulation models are the result of an odd partnering between the Simulation Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital (SIMPeds) and Fractured FX, a company that specializes in creating special effects for movies and television shows. They have been the creative team in films including Tron Legacy and 300: Rise of an Empire, and even won an Emmy for their work in American Horror Story: Freak Show. However, working with SIMPeds presented a completely different challenge.

“A lot of times on-camera feel doesn’t matter,” said Justin Raleigh, the CEO of Fractured FX. He continued, saying that the team was challenged to create new “techniques to develop the elements that you’d see in surgery by reverse engineering what we know about the body.”

Aside from making realistic models, they had to make it so that surgeons performing the operations bought the simulations on a mental, physical and emotional level. In order to create models that responded and reacted in a life-like way, Fractured FX examined CT scans of body parts and consulted with surgeons in replicating the feel of different parts of the body. They used complex techniques such as 3D-printing and scanning and special makeup effects much like those in their films, to create reusable parts. The team was able to produce “artificial tissues that bleed and pulsate, man-made blood vessels that feel like the real thing when doctors insert a catheter and special gels that feel like brain tissue when an endoscope is guided through them.”

“There’s no question that when people go into this environment, they feel it’s quite realistic,” said Dr. Peter Weinstock, the director and chair of SIMPeds. “There is nothing like this on the market currently — they’re all just plastic white faces.”

To put it in perspective, the procedures that these new simulation models will be used for are normally performed on cadavers. However, they are expensive and not reusable. Cadavers have the anatomy, but they lack the responses and feel of the models designed by Fractured FX and SIMPeds.

One of the models that the team created resembles a newborn with life-like skin, muscles and veins. This model will be used to simulate a heart-lung bypass, which involves placing tubes into the internal jugular vein and the carotid artery of a patient. Surgeons must be careful to avoid the fake blood vessels and nerves placed in the model. The other model, which contained the head and upper shoulders of an adult, was designed for neurosurgeons to perform a complex procedure called endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV), a buildup of fluid in the brain used to treat hydrocephalus.

Research into the uses of the simulation models is being expanded upon. Dassault Systèmes, located in Waltham, Mass., has created a realistic 3D model heart that could be used by doctors planning operations and developing new products. Steven Levine of Dassault is also leading research into developing a visual library of heart conditions, in the hopes of providing surgeons with simulated versions of their patients’ hearts to make operations more effective.

Weinstock explained that the Boston Children’s Hospital’s simulators will soon have a plug-and-play component, in which a surgeon preparing to operate can print the organ in question, such as a kidney, based on a CT scan of the patient, and insert the model kidney into the simulated model for a test run beforehand.

Boston’s Children’s Hospital intends to begin selling the models to other medical institutions beginning next year.