Special effects helping to train residents at Boston Children’s Hospital

Hollywood makeup artists teamed up with Boston Children's surgeons to create more realistic surgical trainers.
Hollywood makeup artists teamed up with Boston Children's surgeons to create more realistic surgical trainers.

Special effects whizzes who brought ghouls and monsters to life on television are helping residents at Boston Children’s Hospital become better surgeons.

Fractured FX, a Los Angeles makeup and special effects company, is partnering with the Simulator Program at Children’s to create a line of plastic model patients with body parts that look and feel real, the teams announced Monday at the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit.

The goal is to provide a training platform on which Children’s doctors can rehearse complex procedures before they approach patients. The two groups also intend to sell such simulators to other institutions beginning next year.

“There is nothing like this on the market currently — they’re all just plastic white faces,” said Dr. Peter Weinstock, director and chair of the Boston Children’s Hospital Simulator Program. There’s already initial evidence that doctors-in-training find the new models useful. “There’s no question that when people go into this environment, they feel it’s quite realistic,” Weinstock said.

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The team has created two models so far: A Caucasian tween with eerily supple freckled skin will serve as a model for neurosurgeons, and a life-like model of a newborn will train surgeons practicing operating on an infant with a failing heart and lungs.

“For neurosurgeons, the inside needs to look realistic,” Dr. Roberta Rehder, a research fellow at Children’s who helped lead a pilot study with 10 neurosurgery residents using the model as a tool.

The norm is to use cadavers, but those are expensive and cannot be reused. The new models can re-create feelings like the pulsing of membranes in the brain, which a cadaver procedure cannot replicate. “The anatomy is the same, but the feeling changes,” Rehder said.

Fractured FX worked with surgeons at Boston Children's to construct a medically accurate reconstruction of a young boy's skull and brain.
Fractured FX worked with surgeons at Boston Children's to construct a medically accurate reconstruction of a young boy's skull and brain.
The Fractured FX team has worked on projects like the 2010 film “Tron: Legacy” and the 2014 television series “American Horror Story: Freakshow” and earned an Emmy nomination for the medical realism it achieved in the 2014 period hospital drama, “The Knick.” But working with real-life doctors came with unique challenges.

“A lot of times on camera feel doesn’t matter,” said Justin Raleigh, CEO and founder of Fractured FX.

Aiming to accurately re-create anatomy for the Children’s project, the Fractured FX team studied CT scans of the body and consulted surgeons to replicate filmy membranes, tough cartilage, and other tactile landmarks that experienced surgeons use to navigate inside the body.

The models were designed to be used multiple times — the parts within the body are 3-D-printed and snap together like LEGO blocks, and can be “operated on” and then replaced.

“It’s like a puzzle piece . . . you’re not destroying the whole trainer to do one procedure,” said Bernard Eichholz, chief engineer at Fractured FX.

This is the newest partnership emerging from the growing SimPEDS team at Children’s, a 12-year-old program that has been developing teaching tools for teams of doctors-in-training.

The Simulator Program has 18 full-time staff members and a raft of active projects, like a 3-D-printing unit that makes scale replicas of organs. About 250 hospital clinicians use the various models and simulation software for about 1,500 simulation events per year, Weinstock said.

The hospital has plans to expand the facility early next year. The new spaces will include a virtual clinic, with space to simulate surgeries and recovery rooms, and a “maker-space” to house teams like Simulator Program’s 3-D-printing unit.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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