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June 17, 2013

Medicine and Engineering Join Forces to Restore Disfigured Faces

Mathematical formulas help create facial structures for people with disfiguring injuries

Patients who have suffered devastating facial injuries sometimes go to great lengths to hide themselves from public view. "I've had patients come to me wearing motorcycle helmets, with the visor pulled down," says Michael Miller, chair of plastic surgery at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. "I remember one patient who came to see me wearing a beekeeper hat, with a wide brim and the veil pulled over her face. This is the only way she would go out in public. So, early on in my career, I became very interested in finding better ways to restore a normal appearance and function for people."

And, Miller has always had an interest in engineering, as well as medicine. "There's a tremendous overlap between restorative surgery and engineering because both professions are problem solvers," he says.

One state away, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, civil and mechanical engineer Glaucio Paulino saw the possibilities of combining engineering and medical skills to tackle the complex challenge of facial reconstruction.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Miller and Paulino are now working together, using technology called "topology optimization" to one-day rebuild faces, and lives!

"This research collaboration between a solid mechanician and a clinician illustrates the transformative advances that are achievable at the intersection of the engineering and physical sciences with the life sciences, including biomedicine," says Clark Cooper, program director for materials and surface engineering within the NSF's Directorate for Engineering.

"In particular, this example illustrates the tremendous human good that results from the application of engineering principles and approaches to facial reconstruction for the repair of damage caused by injury and disease, yielding higher fidelity and more robust facial features," says Cooper.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.