Getting your first prenatal sonogram is one of the most amazing experiences you have as an expectant parent. To be able to see your baby's little fingers and toes, and even their heart beating, is a joyous, life-changing moment. But for those parents who are visually impaired, it can be a frustrating event.
That might be changing, however, as innovations in 3-D printing are giving doctors the ability to not only print sonograms for their patients, but also to create physical replicas for them.
Jorge Roberto Lopes dos Santos, an industrial designer with the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia in Brazil, is at the forefront of this technology. His company, Tecnologia Humana 3D, takes sonograms and other imaging techniques and builds 3-dimensional computer models based on them, something Santos told io9.com he took a step further when he realized the potential benefits.
“We work mainly to help physicians when there is some eventual possibility of malformation,” dos Santos told io9, speaking of the highly detailed models they create that allow doctors to examine a fetus's anatomy for potential lung and heart problems as well as Down syndrome. “We also work for parents who want to have the models of their fetuses in 3-D.”
The models are created by taking the images obtained from sonograms and other techniques and plugging that data into a 3-D printer. The printer then transmits layers of material that creates a life-size object parents can hold.
Neva Fairchild, a visually impaired resident expert at the American Foundation for the Blind, knows firsthand just how important this new technology can be.
“Fifteen months ago, my first grandchild was born and they had numerous sonograms and I missed out on all of that,” said Fairchild, who added that the new models would give visually impaired expectant parents a new appreciation of the size of their fetus, as well as their features.
Even though the new technology is an incredible breakthrough, Fairchild stressed that cost is definitely a factor, as recent inventions like this are often expensive and not covered by insurance. Dos Santos agrees, but says his use of MRIs and CT Scans—many readily available at hospitals and imaging centers—keep costs low, about $200 for a full model of a 12-week-old fetus and $300 for the face and arms at 24 weeks.