July 1, 2009 -- Imagine that ultrasound of your unborn child. Now imagine it in 3-D. Now imagine it as a life-size model in the palm of your hand.
Soon that could be a reality for every expectant mother, thanks to a new scientific technique inspired by Brazilian designer Jorge Lopes. Using ultrasound images and MRI, Lopes can create a 3-D computer model of the fetus, and a layering printer does the rest. The process is called rapid prototyping, and the result is a life-size model of a fetus.
Lopes, 42, honed his skill modeling fossils and Egyptian mummies. Now he's gone from mummies to mommies.
His models are now part of an exhibition at London's Royal College of Art, where he's just earned a doctorate.
"I think we're at the beginning of a new science, really," said Stuart Campbell, who heads the obstetrics and gynecology department at King's College London. "It's the sort of technique that in the future could be done in a matter of hours. So that the couple could have a model in their hands in a few hours."
"You can see the facial expressions," Lopes said. "I was trying to find something very original in terms of medicine."
Lopes can create models at various points throughout a pregnancy and has also done models of twins.
"It's amazing to see [a parent's] face when they can hold the models, when they can understand very well the size, the scale," he said, holding up one of the models. "Something like this is only 12 weeks. It's very nice to hold this, 'Oh, this is your son.'"
Campbell remarked at how clearly you can see a 23-week-old fetus, "with its mouth open and its fingers over its face."
These models might help parents bond with their babies, which doesn't always come easy.
"Prenatal bonding is really important for post-natal bonding," Campbell said. "To have a model of the child they can carry around and feel and touch, to me, must help that process."
And when Lopes saw the model of his own unborn son, due this August?
"I was crying of course," he said. "It's, it's amazing to see. And you can see the umbilical cord and everything!"
Models might also help expectant parents deal with fears of an abnormality such as a cleft lip.
"Holding the model and seeing the abnormality there actually helps them come to terms with it," Campbell said. "And actually it's less frightening."
The models could also be a way for blind parents to be able to connect with their babies before birth, and could be therapeutic for parents grieving the loss of a stillborn baby.
It's way too early to predict all the potential medical and diagnostic uses.
But one day very soon, Lopes' invention might be every excited mother's first glimpse of her bundle of joy.