OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
One of the fastest developing technologies in the past decade, 3D printing has seemingly turned science fiction into reality, making most any object “appear” by generating successive layers of material to build it three dimensionally. Used mainly for prototypes in the engineering and automotive fields at its inception, the technology has been rapidly embraced—among both manufacturers and consumers—for countless applications across a wide range of fields. Examples? On the creative end, 3D pens for artists and cutting-edge fashion designs. More controversial, guns and vaginas.
Focusing instead on the more practical is the medical field. The past several years have given the world some amazing examples of how 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing (AM)—is being utilized in surgical procedures. Everything from skull and hip replacements to robotic arms. Even an expandable windpipe for a toddler.
Recently, two major breakthroughs in spinal surgery took place in China. In both, the world’s first 3D-printed vertebrae were successfully implanted. The more recent of the two took place just last month at the orthopedic hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou, China.
The patient, 21-year-old Wang Lin, had been suffering from chronic chest and back pain when doctors at the hospital discovered the cause for this to be a severely damaged and inflamed thoracic vertebrae—the result of a tumor that had grown directly on her spine.
The traditional procedure for removing tumors on the spine and then recasting vertebrae is incredibly time consuming and often results in other complications as well as long recovery times. The tricky process of casting, filing, and polishing vertebrae implants is understandably challenging, and often requires numerous attempts by surgeons to achieve even a “near enough perfect” fit. In addition, a large portion of the success of the procedure depends on surgeons’ spatial recognition skill when reading the X-rays and CT scans to create the actual implant based on those 2D images.
This is where 3D-printing technology plays its crucial role. Ms. Lin’s implants were based on a virtual 3D model of the patient’s spine, which itself was based on a combination of X-ray, MRI, and CT scans.
Using this model, titanium vertebrae were fabricated using a laser sintering process, which is a more specialized type of 3D printing. They were then implanted in the cavities created by removal of the tumor as well as the damaged portions of the vertebrae, while perfectly lining up with the rest of her spine.
“Medical titanium is non-toxic, lightweight, and has a high biological compatibility, and is therefore perfect for human implants and ideal for the vertebrae that need to be durable yet moveable,” one of the doctors explained.
The end result? Significantly reduced surgery time, a perfectly fitted implant, and a quickly recovering patient.
What other breakthroughs does the future hold for 3D printing in the medical field? Well, research has already begun on printed organs, arteries, and stem cells. And, most likely, even “newer, faster, and stronger” vaginas.