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Fetal VR gives parents and physicians a new perspective on unborn babies

Expecting parents — and their families — will now be able to see their unborn babies in virtual reality. Developed by a team of Brazilian researchers, the 3D models combine slices of MRI scans and ultrasound data to reconstruct the environment of the womb, including the fetus, placenta, and umbilical cord.

The project began ten years ago when a team led by Dr. Heron Werner Jr. looked into 3D-printing models of fetuses using ultrasound and MRI data. Their goal was to figuratively take the fetus out of the womb and examine its physical characteristics, from the external features like the size of the skull to internal structures like the respiratory tract. Using this technology, the researchers were able to noninvasively navigate the airway of a 28-week fetus. They’ve since developed the technology as a comprehensive VR experience, equipped with fetal heartbeats captured via ultrasound, which users can explore using a standard headset.

“I think that this technology will be good to better evaluate the fetus,” Werner told Digital Trends. “[And] it will be good to better evaluate multiple pregnancies.”

Werner says his team has recently used the technology to get a closer look at fetal tumors, which in some cases demand surgery before birth. VR offers physicians other angles to examine the tumors and another perspective to evaluate whether surgery is necessary.

“This kind of approach can facilitate the discussion with multidisciplinary team and also parents about some specific cases such as fetal tumors or external malformations,” Werner said.

The researchers have run a number of clinical experiments in Rio de Janeiro and will present their results at the annual Radiological Society of North America next week. Werner hopes to conduct more research in the coming year.

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