A High-Tech Surgery Lesson

In the United States, the birth defect of cleft lip and palate is routinely corrected within the first few months of life. However, many children in developing countries don't have access to trained surgeons, and for years American doctors have traveled overseas to perform the corrective surgery on some of them.

But now, surgeons from New York University Medical Center and a team of Hollywood animators have teamed up to try to change that, reports CBS This Morning Co-Anchor Mark McEwen.

Eight-year-old Dan Furong of the Jiangxi province of China and Yi Yun, 11, of the Hunan province share the same birth defect - cleft lip and palate. Like many children in other countries, they have never had their condition corrected.

"In the developing countries, this is a terrible problem." says Dr. Court Cutting of NYU Medical Center. "Because it's not life or death, it's often a neglected problem."

A computer image of Yi Yun.

The goal is to change that. The two children have been brought to America by the charity Smile Train. They will have the corrective surgery, and as models, ultimately help teach surgeons back home and all over the world how to perform the surgery themselves.

Dr. Cutting and a team of animators are creating an interactive computer animation from scans of the children's faces before and after surgery. The images will be used as a learning tool abroad.

"As you can see here, it's very accurate right around the nose, eyelashes - it picks up very subtle features in the face," says Christopher Hunt of Viewpoint Digital.

The children also undergo MRI scanning to give the animators detailed internal views.

"You get really good stuff - you get muscles and bones and cartilage - and from that information, we're going to build a model of these children," says Walter Noot of Viewpoint Digital.

The children will go back to the animators' studio once more before they leave, after surgery has changed their faces forever.

Dr. Cutting says this type of surgery is difficult to teach.

"The concepts are very three-dimensional," he explains. "It's difficult enough teaching an American resident who speaks fluent English, but teaching someone from a developing country is particularly difficult. We think that this kind of work with the group at Viewpoint will help get these concepts across more clearly."

Dr. Cutting has been going to countries like Vietnam and Chile to teach the surgery for about ten years.

With the animation interactive, Dr. Cutting expects physiians learning the process to get an inside look at how it works and get practice they need.

"Using computer methods, you can do fly-throughs and make mistakes you can't make on a live patient," he says. "This should make it clear in the mind of the surgeon."