Dr. Ashley Saunders Adds New Dimension to Cardiology Prep, Training
Posted December 05, 2017
Anyone who has ever seen an ultrasound knows how
difficult the images can be to interpret. Many soon-to-be parents
have squinted at an ultrasound of their unborn child, asking the
doctor, “What is it? That there?”
Dr. Ashley Saunders and her student examine a 3D-printed
This situation is also a reality for many veterinary students. When
students learn to interpret images of an ultrasound or X-ray, they
are essentially learning to see a 3D object in only two dimensions.
Even veterinarians who are trained to read these images are not
getting the full picture in a single static image.
But with new technology at the College of Veterinary
Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and the work of Dr. Ashley
Saunders, students, doctors, and clients can better visualize
images of the heart using 3D imaging and 3D printing.
Saunders, an associate professor and cardiologist in
the CVM’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, is focused
on better understanding the heart using state-of-the-art Echopixel
software that merges many images from a CT scan into a single 3D
model. With this software and a pair of 3D glasses, the viewer can
see the 3D heart projected in front of them. Unlike virtual reality
goggles, the 3D glasses do not fully immerse the viewer or make
“It makes so much more sense when you’re looking at a
heart that is a complex 3D structure,” Saunders said. “It is very
exciting because we can repair things and see things that we
Creating 3D images of the heart also allows
cardiologists to give patients unprecedented care because they are
able to see and understand the heart in a novel way. The software
has been used in human medicine, but Saunders’ work is the first
time it’s being applied in veterinary medicine and education.
Other software exists that can translate these images
into 3D, but Saunders said the programs are limited, allowing the
heart to be viewed only at certain angles or restricting how the
image can be rotated. In contrast, the software used by the CVM
allows viewers to move the image any way they choose, providing an
unprecedented view of the heart.
Another option is creating a 3D printed model of the
heart, which can give clients and students a tangible way of
examining the organ. However, 3D printing requires extra materials
and can take hours to days to generate, whereas the software
creates a 3D image of the heart in less than five minutes,
according to Saunders.
Saunders uses the 3D visualization system.
These 3D images and models have the potential to revolutionize how
veterinary students are taught by addressing students’ learning
styles and making veterinary medicine more open to individuals to
learn more effectively with non-traditional methods.
“We’re trained in veterinary school in anatomy first,
so you learn the body and you can see it and touch it,” Saunders
said. “But after that, we spend our time teaching the students how
to interpret the body in two dimensions on flattened images looking
at X-rays and ultrasound images. But when we start teaching in flat
2D images, I think some things get lost. If we can put it back into
3D and let them see the layers and structures, it’s really
The 3D visualizations have proven wildly popular in the
“The students love the 3D. Everybody likes it because it helps
you see and it has a ‘wow factor,’” said Saunders, adding that she
takes the technology beyond the “wow factor” by highlighting how
practical the technology can be. “Students can answer questions
about different parts and see how they relate to each other, and
point out challenging concepts.”
Veterinarians who’ve been trained to use X-rays and other 2D
tools should not feel their skills are no longer valuable, since 3D
and 2D tools can be used in tandem as complements to each other; a
3D understanding of the anatomy helps veterinarians interpret the
2D images better in practice, according to Saunders.
The technology is particularly useful for patients with
congenital heart defects because surgeons are given a glimpse of
the heart before the procedure.
“When we have a puppy or kitten born with a heart defect, we
have to figure out how we can fix it, and visualizing it before you
get in there is very, very helpful,” she said.
In preparing for a surgery, Saunders and her team can use 3D
images and models to discuss specifics such as what the heart looks
like compared to how the patient is positioned.
“Then we can identify the problem and map it out,” she said. “It
brings the cardiologists together with the surgeons, so everybody’s
on the same page.”
Saunders also makes use of 3D technology during an
“We have a 3D ultrasound probe to build the heart in 3D and help
us make decisions about how we are going to fix our patients right
in the operating room, when we need it,” she said. “That’s been
“The clients are really ecstatic,” Saunders said. “They’re
mostly happy that we’re able to fix their pet, and I don’t believe
we would have been able to be as successful as we have been without
being able to see the heart the way that we do.”
For more information about the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our
website at vetmed.tamu.edu
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Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of
Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College
of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; firstname.lastname@example.org
; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)
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