A technology commonly used for designing buildings, bridges, and aircraft has now been used to aid breast tissue reconstruction in cancer patients. Researchers from Australia, Germany, Singapore, and Georgia Tech have used computer-aided design (CAD) to create an extremely accurate mold of a breast that was used as a visual aid to surgeons in tissue reconstruction operations. CAD was also used to design and produce patient-specific physical scaffolds that could potentially be used in conjunction with one of the most promising areas of medicine – tissue engineering.

In theory, patients’ own cells could be harnessed and grown onto the highly specific scaffold and then transferred to the affected area, avoiding the need to transfer tissue from other parts of the body, which can cause large scars, result in considerable blood loss, and require five to ten hours of anesthesia.

Study senior author, Professor Dietmar Hutmacher, said, “We would take a laser scan of the healthy breast and use the CAD modeling process to design a patient-specific scaffold in silicone. We would then produce a scaffold of very high porosity and load it with the patient’s own cells in combination with a hydrogel. The construct would then be implanted.”

3D laser scanning was performed on three female patients who suffered from breast cancer. The images were then fed into a piece of CAD-software that produced a single image representing the patient’s breast and surrounding thorax region. This image was then “printed” to form a 3D mold that was used as an operative aid for surgeons who performed autologous tissue reconstructions – the transferring of tissue from another part of the patient’s body – on each of the patients.

After each of the operations, the surgeons observed a more perfect shape with a higher degree of symmetry between the breasts while, more importantly, the patients reported a higher satisfaction of the surgery outcomes than the control group, with respect to shape and symmetry of their breasts.

The long-term aim of the study, however, was on the development of a material that could be used in tissue engineering, and it showed that CAD could be an effective way of achieving this.

A function was created using the CAD software that enabled the creation of a mold for any scanned tissue with the ability to independently tailor the porosity and pore size – a property that is essential to the seeding and diffusing of cells throughout the structure and something that limits modern technologies.