Dec 12, 2014 | By Alec

3D printing is generally used to tinker with and develop creative ideas, but it has some very important and potentially life-saving medical applications as well. While many of these are very expensive and still under development, we sometimes come across rare medical complications that don't seem so complicated anymore when 3D printing can be used.

The 21-year-old Wang Lin, who is currently in her senior year at a university in Hangzhou, China, certainly wouldn't have thought that 3D printing could save her life. But a few months ago she began suffering from chronic chest and back pains. When the pain became unendurable last October – 'it became so bad I couldn't live with it and continue my studies' – she finally decided to visit the orthopaedic hospital attached the Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou.

There doctors discovered that her chest pains were actually being caused by seriously damaged thoracic vertebrae. Specifically, her 10th and 11th vertebrae were very inflamed by a condition called ossifying fibroma, where a type of tumors grow on the spine. It's a very serious affliction that, if left untreated, could severely damage her spine and endanger her life.

Now this condition can be treated, but it involves a very complicated and hazardous surgery. To treat it, surgeons will have to cut open her back, remove the bone-like tumors and completely recast her thoracic vertebrae all the while maintaining the stability of the spine. This process also involves inserting two replacements for the damaged vertebrae, that need to fit perfectly. This whole procedure is especially complicated due to the location; the spine is a vital component of the body and key to the central nerve system; one mistake could paralyze a patient for the rest of her life.

Moreover, its complicated for doctors to prepare for surgery, as everyone's spine is different. As the doctor explained, 'during surgery, the artificial vertebrae need to be polished and reworked to make sure they can be successfully embedded.' To do, doctors generally rely on X-ray and CT images and simple experience. They need to have good spatial imagination and react at a moment's notice, as every surgical procedure on the spine is different.

Wang was thus facing a very complicated surgical experience that not only takes very long to complete and requires a long time to recover from, but also tends to cause significant psychological damage. After consulting with the department's director, the 21-year-old remained committed to the surgery.

Fortunately, her surgeons decided to take advantage of the latest 3D printing innovations in the implant industry, and tailor-made two titanium vertebrae for her using laser sintering process. These were based on scans (X-Ray, MRI and CT) of her healthy and diseased vertebrae. These implants were subsequently printed and made be completely fit into the cavities the surgeons would create, while perfectly lining up to the rest of her spine. As the doctors added, '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.'

After weeks of preparation, the surgery finally took place a week ago. Surgeons successfully removed the two thoracic vertebrae as well as all the inflamed disc tissue. The 3D printed implants were successfully inserted and proved to be a perfect fit. The surgery lasted approximately three hours. The patient, while still recovering, is reportedly doing well and smiling.

While these 3D printed vertebrae were the first to be actually used during surgery in the country, the Vice President of Zhejiang's Orthopedics department praised their potential and said that they can expect to see more of this very useful and life-saving technology. 'While conventional techniques require approximately five hours to complete this type of surgery, 3D printing technology, which allows us to completely and accurately construct prostheses using X-ray, CT and MRI, can cut that time down to three.'

He went on to say that 3D printing thus not only results in more accurate, stronger and more suitable implants, but also cuts down on surgery time and thus also on recovery time. 'We therefore hope to be widely using medical 3D printing technology in the near future, in fields like pelvic repair, vertebrae surgery and limb and bone reparations. This technology is turning orthopaedic doctors into 'personal tailors.''


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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