Scott McMillin holds up a tangle of what looks like bones, though closer inspection will show that it's a model made of cornstarch and wax.
It is, he explains, an exact replica of the skeleton of conjoined twins. Surgeons hope to use it to plot out a complicated surgery.
This is the world of Javelin, a small Salt Lake company that specializes in creating medical prototypes. Javelin, a Lone Peak Engineering Company, can use its technology to take the "slices" from a CT scan of a brain tumor and use them to build a scale model of both skull and tumor. The model can then rendered in exact detail in various mediums, from the cornstarch and wax to bioceramic material or metals.
And the Velocity software that drives the process — and which Javelin helped create — can either create a three-dimensional computer image or drive the hardware that actually produces a model.
When Alair Emory and McMillin formed the company a dozen years ago, they weren't thinking about giving doctors scale models of brain tumors or lawyers replicas of brain injuries for litigation.
They worked more with the manufacturing sector. But changing economic times have led them recently to phase out their contract research and prototyping efforts and turn their focus instead to medical reconstruction and medical litigation. With a few medical research projects — like building wrist bones or the teeny bones in the ear out of bioceramic matter — thrown in.
They have also, over the years, worked with artists to reproduce sculptures on the computer and turn them into actual models.
It is the medical potential that keeps McMillin and Emory excited.
For instance, a surgeon could cut a couple of hours out of a delicate brain surgery by studying the replica of what he would encounter in flesh and planning out the operation.
Rendering a scan into a model, whether taken from a CT scan, MRI or even an image taken from a microscope has also helped diagnose problems, Emory said. She talks about the man who had a bone fracture. The doctor suspected, because of the level of pain that persisted, that there was another fracture, albeit a tiny one, in the bone. Scans didn't show it clearly to the human eye. By putting the scan into the computer and then building a clear, resin-based model, the fracture was clearly visible.
Physicians can use the prototype brain tumors for calibration to make computer-guided surgery more precise. The system can be used to calibrate equipment and medical devices and easily merges data from different sources, like the skull data from a CT scan and the tumor (tissue) data from an MRI.
Or the models can be sent to a titanium house to have medical parts, which have been approved for use in humans, made so precisely that, thanks to the mold, they'll fit without adjustment.
The system can also be used to create a specific tool or device with medical applications.
The software program, named Velocity2Pro, in part because it's so fast, is a big hit overseas, from Australia to Asia. Some proponents believe every complicated surgery should include use of such models, because it removes so much of the guesswork. The models can actually compensate for shifts that occur. An example would be that when a piece of skull is removed, the brain shifts a bit, which can change where the tumor is in relationship to the hole.
In less than 15 seconds, scan data can be turned into a computer-generated model. And that data can be sent to a device that within four hours or so can create something as complicated, both inside and out, as a human skull.
Most hospitals can transfer the data from scans directly to Javelin over the Internet, so there's no waiting for a courier or the mail carrier to make the delivery. That means the computer can begin creating a model almost immediately.
Best of all, there are multiple filters built into the program, McMillin said, so that unwanted components of the scan can be eliminated. That means "we can get rid of bullet holes and teeth, cavities and metals, to extract data when the image is poor."
And bits and pieces can be selected or excluded. Skull data can be used to render only a jawbone, for instance.
The models are also a graphic tool lawyers love. They create something tangible jurors and judges can see and understand, much easier than trying to interpret a medical scan.