5 minute read

Bringing 2D Medical Data to Life in 3D

Ochsner’s m3D lab uses cutting-edge technologies to help patients, students, residents and clinicians understand complex medical concepts

By Anne Paglia

About 10 years ago, when Korak Sarkar, MD, was in neurology training at Northwestern University, he treated a patient with aphasia. Dr. Sarkar noticed that she struggled to follow auditory explanations of her condition. At the time, the medical field was just starting to adopt technologies like 3D printing, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). He believed a visual 3D model might help the patient understand what was happening in her brain.

“I thought I’d just go on YouTube and figure out how to 3D print,” Dr. Sarkar said. “Needless to say, that was naive. It was not that simple.”

A few years later, in 2015, Dr. Sarkar brought his knowledge of 3D printing and advanced visualization to Ochsner Health. With help from the Ochsner Excellence Fund, he secured a 3D printer and 3D modeling software for his office. The work that followed would eventually evolve into the Ochsner Medical 3D (m3D) lab.

“Our mission is to use innovative technologies in validated ways to improve patient education and engagement, medical training and clinical care delivery,” said Dr. Sarkar, Clinical Director of the m3D lab. “Being able to educate individuals and let them see in 3D is incredibly helpful. Our primate visual systems are designed to consume 3D data.”

While a majority of the lab’s work involves anatomical modeling, particularly through web-based 3D models, its capabilities extend to other technologies, as well. It can 3D print those models, build AR and VR programs and even create holographic displays. The lab works with clinicians across the Ochsner system—including orthopedists, cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons and neurologists—to educate patients and optimize approaches to complex cases.

For instance, the Ochsner neurovascular team may have a patient with an aneurysm who is reluctant to undergo treatment. “Often they’re like silent ticking time bombs, and found incidentally,” Dr. Sarkar said. Without obvious symptoms, patients can be resistant to the condition’s risky but necessary interventions. For patients grappling with this diagnosis, a 3D model can be more intuitive and convincing than an MRI— prompting them to get the treatment they need.

Korak Sarkar, MD, uses virtual reality tools with a patient.

Korak Sarkar, MD, uses virtual reality tools with a patient.

Photo by Daymon Gardner

Sustainably scaling the m3D lab

Since its start in Dr. Sarkar’s office at Ochsner Baptist, the m3D lab has grown significantly. In 2018, it hired Jack McGee, its first biomedical engineer, followed by Colin Curtis, another biomedical engineer, in 2020. The lab now has an operations leader, Kimberly Hughes, and a lab manager, Matthew Hales. The team even tapped into the talent of the New Orleans gaming industry and brought on

Alec Sladen, a developer who helped create the lab’s viewer and applications for distraction therapy, a technique that aims to reduce patient anxiety and pain through VR.

The lab has also held multiple residencies over the years, first at innovationOchsner with guidance from Richard Milani, MD, and then in the Information Technology department alongside Louis Jeansonne IV, MD, Chief Medical Informatics Officer, Leonardo Seoane, MD, Chief Academic Officer, Cuong “CJ” Bui, MD, System Chair of Neurosurgery, Richard Zweifler, MD, System Associate Medical Director of Neurology and Steve LeBlond, Vice President of Information Services.

Key team members helped Dr. Sarkar and his team move their workflows into the electronic medical record (EMR) system. Clinicians can now order models through the EMR, and the team gets notified electronically. “That’s the beauty of being internal,” Dr. Sarkar said. “As opposed to a startup or vendor that’s contracted to work with us, we’re embedded and can leverage Ochsner’s digital infrastructure. It reduces a lot of friction.”

Now, the lab can collaborate with staff and clinicians across specialties. “There’s something special about having a biomedical engineer right next to a neurovascular surgeon,” Dr. Sarkar said.

“That’s very unique in the Gulf South, and even the nation.”

Colin Curtis works with Fawad Khan, MD, in the m3D lab.

Colin Curtis works with Fawad Khan, MD, in the m3D lab.

Photo by Mark Williams

Rapid engineering during the pandemic

One key advantage of the m3D lab is the rapid design, engineering and prototyping available in the lab. In 2020, the lab used this advantage to begin 3D printing personal protective equipment (PPE) like face shields and medical barriers at scale. This was critical to overcome supply chain failures caused by the pandemic and won a Spirit of Leadership award for the best non-clinical project that year. With the new biodesign space, they can find novel ways to engineer and fabricate medical tools closer to the site of care.

“The pandemic opened my eyes to a lot of things, including how dependent traditional healthcare was on non-resilient, 20th-century supply chains,” Dr. Sarkar said. “The biodesign lab will give us an opportunity to design, develop and validate medical extended reality tools, then integrate them into a large delivery network and get this technology to people.”

There’s something special about having a biomedicalengineer right next to a neurovascular surgeon. That’svery unique in the Gulf South, and even the nation.

Dr. Sarkar looks forward to continuing to ask big questions about these emerging technologies and their applications, like whether VR can be used for pain therapy or AR for physical rehabilitation.

“It’s really amazing that Ochsner has adopted these innovations and is doing so at such a scale,” he said. “We’re grateful for the Ochsner Excellence Fund and the system at large for supporting this. It was bold and brave, but it’s really paid off and will continue to do so.”