3D Animation Illustrates Organ Regeneration for Esophageal Cancer Patients

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XVIVO Scientific Animation Partners with Biostage to Illustrate Organ Regeneration Using Cellframe Technology

View Biostage Regeneration at XVIVO.net

It’s a video about a technology that can change lives. We have to raise awareness to this devastating disease and then tell patients and families that there is a way to save patients’ lives without sacrificing their lifestyle.

Skilled medical communicators can take a complex topic and explain it to their audience so it is easy to understand. They also bear a professional responsibility to get the details of the science right. Great medical communication is an important means to educate health care providers, patients, and their families about rare or devastating diseases. The team at XVIVO Scientific Animation had the chance to make an impact on esophageal cancer with their recent video Tissue Regeneration.


For patients with advanced esophageal cancer, surgical removal of the esophagus offers the best chance of survival. Once the diseased esophagus is removed, part of the stomach or intestine is used to make a new esophagus. Up to 19% of patients can die as a result of the surgery. Patients who survive the surgery have a 1 in 3 chance of developing problems in their lungs or life-threatening infections. On top of these risks, patients rarely lead completely normal lives after the surgery. Many of them are restricted to soft food diets, suffer from severe indigestion, and are at greater risk of infection for the remainder of their lives.

Dr. Saverio La Francesca, a cardio thoracic surgeon researcher formerly at the DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center at the Houston Methodist Hospital, devised a completely different method to reconstruct the esophagus. His technology is being developed by a team of material scientists, biologists and engineers at Biostage, an ambitious biotech firm hoping to offer the first truly personalized method of organ regeneration.

Saverio and his team created Cellspan - a unique, biocompatible, esophagus-shaped scaffold, to reconstruct the patient’s native esophagus. A month before surgery, the Cellspan scaffold is seeded with a patient’s own stem cells. The scaffold is then placed into a bioreactor where the cells will multiply and affix to the scaffold. On surgery day, the damaged portion of the patient’s esophagus is replaced with the Cellspan implant. The cells in the remaining portion of the patient’s esophagus will signal the stem cells to regenerate into the appropriate layers of esophageal tissue. The layered structure includes all the relevant esophageal tissue that may form a working esophagus, restoring esophageal function so the patient can resume a more normal life. Moreover, the scaffold is not permanent and once enough tissue is regenerated to reconstitute the esophageal continuity, the scaffold is endoscopically retrieved and discarded.


Biostage worked with XVIVO Scientific Animation to make Tissue Regeneration, a 3.5-minute video released in 2016 about the Cellspan technology.

Michael Astrachan is a highly-regarded medical 3D animator and the co-founder of XVIVO Scientific Animation, located in Wethersfield, CT. The studio, with a staff of 13, has worked on hundreds of projects for clients including Harvard University, National Institutes of Health, Novartis, Pfizer and PBS. “Medical, scientific animations are a vibrant medium in which to show viewers a complex scientific story,” says Astrachan. The animations can convey the novelty and potential market of a technology to investors as well as educate researchers, health care providers, and patients about the medical impact of the new therapeutic option. The key to achieving these goals is to get the science right.        

In his 20 years in medical animation, Astrachan has perfected a process he applies to new projects from day one. For this project with Biostage, he visited the company headquarters in Holliston, MA and held detailed discussions on the scientific principles of Cellspan technology with Dr. La Francesca. He met with Biostage CEO Jim McCorry and together refined the project’s goals and the role the resulting animation would play in the company’s overall strategy.


Before any sketches were drawn, XVIVO’s team educated themselves on two common types of esophageal disease that Cellspan treats - Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. The team collected reference photographs, microscopic images, and illustrations that depicted how these diseases affect the epithelial lining of the esophagus. They read interviews with patients and doctors that described the horrific nature of the disease and current surgical procedures. “One early decision was to dedicate almost half of the video to the shortcomings of the current procedure,” explains XVIVO's KC Fallon. People need to see the limitations of the current surgery to fully appreciate the impact that Biostage’s new technology could have.”

During the research phase, the team identified key parts of the process that should be visualized, including stem cell isolation and expansion, implant incubation, and implant placement in the patient.


The next phase of an XVIVO project involves scripting the animation. In writing for a scientific animation, XVIVO writes a script that allows the animators to easily envision the scientific information so they can illustrate it for the viewers.

The scriptwriting effort was led by Agnella Izzo Matic, a talented medical writer with a PhD in biomedical engineering. Matic says her, “goal is to tell a clear and accurate story that is easily understood by the viewer.” Matic reviewed the information gathered in the research phase and created a framework - general ideas, scenes, and overall structure – that was then developed into the full script, making sure to include transitions between scenes so that viewers could easily follow the technological process and the medical procedures.


Animation is a time-consuming form of art to produce. It is important that animators receive very precise, highly evolved storyboards – a blueprint that visualizes the script. “Storyboard development is often the longest and most challenging phase of the entire project, and it required multiple rounds of feedback from Biostage and revisions before reaching the final storyboard,” notes Astrachan.

Katherine “KC” Fallon, a Certified Medical Illustrator and Science Director at XVIVO, was the lead storyboard artist for Tissue Regeneration. “The dynamic between Biostage and our team was excellent,” Fallon says. “They provided us with resources and extensive knowledge, but trusted us to best capture their story in an animation.” Her storyboards included design layouts, camera angles and visual references for the animators.


Veteran animators Edward Quirk, Joel Shetler, and Chris Roy worked together on the Biostage project. The team primarily relied on Softimage XSI for 3D modeling and animation application, while AfterEffects was used for 2D animations.

Edward Quirk built a computer model to animate the interaction between stem cells and the Cellspan implant. He set up a rigid-body simulation, a method that allows animators to experiment with the position of solid objects in motion. Simple spheres represented stem cells, and a matrix of several thousand interwoven tubes represented the Cellspan implant. Once the model was approved, Quirk created the actual stem cells using proprietary tools.

The second animation challenge was showing the tissue growth from the native esophagus to the Cellspan implant. The team first created a 2D point cloud for the length of the Cellspan implant. The point cloud was then used as a seed value for Voronoi cell creation, with varying cell sizes, shapes, and colors that changed according to their location in the tissue layers. Animators added turbulence to simulate growth, then repositioned and scaled cells to show tissue layers being added. They staggered the timing of layers to portray the outermost layer of the esophageal tissue being completed. The detail used in the animation process allows XVIVO to accurately represent the science behind the story.

Visitors to Biostage’s website can view the video to better understand the process behind esophageal regeneration with the Cellspan implant.

Astrachan stresses the importance of this project. “It’s a video about a technology that can change lives. We have to raise awareness to this devastating disease and then tell patients and families that there is a way to save patients’ lives without sacrificing their lifestyle.”

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Michael Astrachan
since: 10/2009
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