By Aryaman Bhatia, Science and Tech editor, The Pawprint
Archie, a six-month-old boy, was born with a disorder in which the growth lines in his skull merged too early. His parents had to make a difficult choice: risk surgery or let nature take its course, with all of the physical and psychological consequences that may result.
But, owing to a game-changing new technology, Amanda and Judd Michnowiec were able to preview the alterations in virtual reality. That, according to the doctor behind it, is more information than most parents receive.
Archie’s ailment, known as Sagittal Synostosis, means that his skull cannot expand laterally to accommodate his growing brain.
Instead it spreads to the front and rear of the head, altering the contour of the head. While the illness is not fatal, it can cause speech and language delays as well as increased intracranial pressure.
“It’s been extremely overwhelming,” his mother, Amanda, said. “I’ve had a lot of appointments and a lot of time away [from work].”
So Amanda and Judd jumped at the chance to be the first to utilize a groundbreaking new artificial intelligence (AI) platform that forecasts the result of a life-changing procedure in virtual reality when Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children approached them.
The virtual environment allowed them to examine a reconstruction of Archie’s skull produced from a CT scan from all angles during their initial appointment. Overlaid in green on top of this was a rendering of his head following the reshaping surgery.
The algorithms required to make these latter photographs were made feasible by combining data from 60 procedures over the previous seven years.
“We’re delighted, and obviously there’s always that fear about what he’ll have done,” Amanda remarked following the consultation. “Although it’s a lot to take in, it’s good to know that’s what we can anticipate and that it’s been explained, and that we won’t be left wondering what’s going on.”
However, the technology not only allows the pair to see and comprehend the alterations that the treatment will create, but it also encourages them to recommend prospective changes to the surgeon.
According to Dr. Noor Ul Owase Jeelani, a specialist paediatric neurosurgeon at the hospital, the technology gives the couple a better idea of what the future holds.
“Now, when they sign the consent form, it’s what I’d call fully informed consent,” he added.
“What I would want to see as a surgeon in ten, or possibly twenty years’ time is that most surgical practice is done this manner, with the parents and patients having a lot of control and influence.”
Archie underwent surgery a few weeks later, when his parents had reaffirmed their choice to proceed. The procedure entailed inserting a miniature spring into his skull, which instantly began to rectify his head shape.
This spring’s placement and influence were also depicted in the VR environment. The spring was removed after four weeks. Dr. Jeelani devised the procedure 13 years ago, and it has not only lowered the surgical time from three hours to 40 minutes, but it has also decreased blood transfusions by 90%.
This has resulted in more predictable outcomes, and it is because of this predictability that the data can now be used for VR visualisations with 90% accuracy.