Nov.13, 2014 | By Alec

While 3D printing technology has the capacity to grant us an unprecedented level of convenient production and artistic freedom, its greatest revolutionary potential is undoubtedly in the medical world. While even regular desktop 3D printers are capable of producing basic prosthetics, industrial grade SLS 3D printers are already producing unique and extremely precise implants that are saving and changing lives one patient at a time.

The 30-year-old Slovakian Juraj Shank recently experienced this for himself, when doctors of the University Hospital of L. Pasteur in Slovakia's second city of Košice placed a large, 3D printed skull implant over his brain. The successful surgery lasted for more than seven hours, and the patient is already recovering and regenerating brain tissue at an amazing rate.

Juraj had been confined to a wheel chair for about nine years, after an accident severely incapacitated him. Falling from a height of four meters, his skull had been extensively damaged. At the time, doctors were forced to remove about a third of his cranial structure, which was largely shattered, and replaced it with a provisional acrylic implant.

While saving his life, this first implant wasn't a proper fit. Exerting pressure on the nerve tissues of his brain, the patient began to lose communicative and motoric skills. Becoming confined to a wheelchair, he was left incapable of communicating and unable to care for himself.

Last summer, however, Juraj's family first learned that new and innovative approaches to cranial implants were being developed by Slovak researchers from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering Technical University of Kosice and the local company CEIT Biomedical Engineering. Finding Juraj a suitable candidate for their procedure, they developed an implant that would be an exact fit for Juraj's skull, which was realised in the biologically acceptable metal Titanium Ti64 using Laser Sintering technology.

The surgery, led by the neurosurgeon Miroslav Gajdos and professor Andrej Jenča of the Clinic of Stomatology and Maxillofacial Surgery in Košice, proceeded without any complications. After first removing the original implant that exerted pressure on the patient's brain, the new implant was fixed in place in a manner specifically enabling brain tissues to regenerate.

And to the amazement of even the surgeons, recovery was very swift. As professor Jenča told local media, 'The patient's recovery surpassed even our most optimistic forecasts. Today it has been almost three months since the surgery, and the patient is again able to communicate, move independently and recovered an optimistic outlook on life.' Reportedly, Juraj has even become able to play chess again, something that had been absolutely impossible before the surgery.

All this has been made possible by the scientific team of the Slovakian company CEIT Biomedical Engineering, a company set up by scientists from the Technical University of Košice (TUKE) with the specific purpose of promoting Additive Manufacturing in the medical industry. As the company's Managing Director, Radovan Hudak, explained, 'We wanted to explore its potential for implantology and at the same time develop solutions for patients which were both helpful and economical.'

As this concerns life and death situations, this company has been exploring 3D printing options for more than a year before settling on a functional and suitable additive manufacturing technology. 'Precision, reproducibility and surface-quality were all high up the list of specifications, along with a production process that was as free as possible from production errors.' It also had to be a production technology that could successfully get state certification for hospital applications.

In the end, they settled for EOS and its EOSINT M 280 3D printer, which was not only capable of producing high-quality titanium alloy implants, but also met the necessary criteria, 'such as experience, market success and penetration as well as offering the complete package.'

This particular printer has, as Juraj's surgery illustrated, proven to be capable manufacturing extremely thin objects with uneven geometrical shapes and cavities. Impressively, these 3D printed implants can be limited to thicknesses of just 1.5 mm, weigh just a few grams and can incorporate micro-sensors capable of recording medical data.

Furthermore, it looks like this revolutionary approach to implants isn't limited to a single unique case. CEIT Biomedical Engineering has recently been granted EU-wide approval for producing cranial, facial and jaw implants to be used in hospitals, and have even been successful in negotiating with Slovakian insurance companies to cover the costs of these life-saving prints (in Slovakia anyway).

This means that these life-saving 3D printed implants are set to become more widely available across Europe in the years to come. While this doubtlessly will be a slow development, as doctors and especially insurance companies will have to be convinced of the superiority of these products, it nonetheless means that the 3D printing revolution in the medical world is slowly picking up steam. How long would it take for 3D printed medical care to become commonplace?


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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silvia sanides wrote at 12/4/2014 11:23:29 PM:

Hi Alec, I am a medical writer for the German news magazine Focus. We would like to report about this case in a story about 3D printing in medicine. Do you know where we can get the photos you have in the article? (hi res version). Thanks for any help, Silvia Sanides Focus Magazine, Munich wrote at 11/16/2014 2:28:03 PM:

Truly inspiring and amazing! Thanks for this great article.

Michael Balzer, All Things 3D wrote at 11/16/2014 3:32:29 AM:

As always, great reporting Alec. It is good to hear roadblocks are being lifted in Europe. I am hoping the FDA is watching and we see this sooner than later in the Unites States.

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