Technology & innovation

In Chelyabinsk, growing new faces is no fairy tale

25 Jun '12
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

A group of Chelyabinsk cancer specialists and scientists of South Urals State University has reportedly developed a revolutionary technology that enables the remodeling of tissues lost to cancer. Laser-grown titanium implants may give thousands of patients renewed hope, they say. Pioneering the rehab technique in Russia, the innovators expect to have the technology certified in the near future.

The new methodology is the culmination of an 18-month effort by a hard-driving team of Chelyabinsk oncologists, engineers and programmers that undertook to develop prostheses for facial parts ablated in a cancer operation—the first-ever such attempt in Russia.

In this new approach, the researchers analyze a multitude of CAT (computed tomographic scanning) images of a damaged area to fashion a virtual model of a future prosthesis that would show a 100% match with the facial anatomy of a specific patient. To make an implant the innovators use titanium.

The team doesn’t cast and mold a titanium body part as it may seem. This lightweight, strong and biologically safe metal is used to actually grow an implant.

In a special device designed by university scientists, a cloud of titanium dust is created, the developers explain. The cloud is exposed to a laser beam that runs all along the particles and ‘welds’ them onto one another. It takes a reported few hours to grow an implant with the pre-programmed parameters.

The group is now working to obtain all the licenses and certificates required by the Russian law.

The project leader

Set up in 1943 as an institute of mechanics and mechanical engineering, South Urals State University joined in 2010 a group of 12 Russian higher educational establishments granted the status of National Research Universities and has grown to rank among Russia’s ten best educational and research institutions.

With its 32 departments and 142 chairs in Chelyabinsk plus 11 branches in other cities South Urals State University is innovation-driven and was the first in the region to establish a techno-park in 2006.

The tragedy of the defaced

The project idea was prompted by the realities of today’s facial cancer endemic in the Chelyabinsk region. Each year, a reported 500+ cancer cases have their facial malignant tumors removed at the regional oncologic dispensary.

In so doing, surgeons have to also ablate surrounding parts of a patient’s face mutilated by a neoplasm, leaving hideous wounds, sometimes the size of a fist. Losing any, whether it’s nose or ear, leads to the person’s much harder post-surgery reintegration into society. There are complete failures to reintegrate, too.

According to the Urals scientists, there’s no rehab program for such patients. The researchers have used nanotech to change the situation.

Watching it grow…

In an example that Alexander Aladin of the Chelyabinsk oncologic dispensary set to describe how their technology works, a 39-year-old woman was diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma of her nasal cavity. It was an advanced, third-stage case; she found some hope with radiotherapy—only to develop the tumor again within 12 months on the same spot.

The nose and half of her upper jaw had to be removed. The oncologists attempted partial reconstruction, remodeling what would look like a nose with some skin fragments from her forehead and cheek. The effort failed because there was no bone or cartilage to prop the makeshift or make it fit for breathing.

Her first nasal prosthesis took six months to put together. It began from a plasticine prototype; then CAT scanning and 3D imaging enabled the doctors to make an exact copy of the patient’s skull with a nose frame fitted on it.

A prototyping machine then used the precise parameters to grow a small implant. A thirty-minute operation, during which the implant was fixed on the woman’s face, was only a beginning.

The nanotech-based innovation is capable of restoring itself. The nose took a normal shape, and the patient regained nasal breathing. In another three months the porous implant had a new Schneiderian (mucous) membrane fully grown on it.

In another example, a 52-year-old man had his nose made whole. With experience and more advanced know-how under their belt the team programmers took almost no time to remodel soft tissues layer after layer. Soon after the tumor was removed the patient was once again operated on—and according to the South Urals State University scientists, left with the self-sustained implant successfully placed.
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