Oct 6, 2016 | By Nick

A Great Dane has a new spring in his step after receiving a new 3D printed bionic leg that helped him beat bone cancer.

Auckland resident Yvette Wharton spotted her beloved pet limping and a trip to the vet brought heartbreaking news: 6-year-old Leroy had a malignant tumor on his front right leg. She had caught it early, though, and veterinary surgeon Alastair Coomer soon determined that the cancer had not had a chance to spread.

That gave Leroy a fighting chance and then Wharton and the surgeons had a tough choice to make. The obvious answer was a complete amputation that offered Leroy a new life on three legs. But there was another, riskier option. The team wanted to try and save the leg with the help of a 3D printed implant.

Implants are becoming increasingly common in veterinary surgery, but this procedure posed some unique technical challenges. It is huge, and that created problems for the engineering team as well as the surgeons at the other end. Coomer knew he would only get one shot at such an invasive procedure and that if the implant didn’t work first time then he would have to amputate. It had to fit, perfectly.

So he called upon Axia Design, which took a CT scan of the affected leg to create a model of the infected bone. The company then went to work with CAD software to design the implant and came up with a number of innovative solutions to conquer some serious engineering challenges and give Leroy a better quality of life.

The implant was 350mm long, according to 3D printing specialist RAM’s chief executive Warwick Downing. It was the largest item the company had ever been asked to produce and the firm opted for titanium because it is simply the most reliable option for a major implant.

Images credit: Veterinary Specialists Auckland

It also boasted the strength required to support Leroy’s substantial 175lb frame and because titanium is so strong, the designers opted for another clever trick that is growing into a branch of medical research on its own.

The honeycomb structure that Axia Design opted for serves two very distinct purposes. First it kept the weight of this massive implant down to just 11oz without sacrificing structural rigidity. It also meant the implant could be porous and this is where the real magic could happen.

This porous structure will ensure that the bone will graft to the implant and could even encourage substantial bone regrowth. Essentially this is a basic form of medical scaffold and institutions around the world are experimenting with new 3D printed structures that can support the regrowth of bone and even the generation of complete organs for transplants.

Massey University’s Jonathan Bray brought his considerable experience to the table and he hit the news recently for giving a cat a new 3D printed jaw. He reckons, as long as the implant is perfectly designed and manufactured, that the actual operation itself is the easy part of the whole equation.

“The implant we made for Leroy fits Leroy, and Leroy only,” he told stuff. “All they have to do is cut the bone in the right place and the implant just falls into place, which makes surgery very quick.”

It’s a testament to the skill of the 3D designers, the 3D print company and the surgeons that Leroy was up and walking shortly after his operation. The number of screws holding the implant in place suggests that Bray did Leroy’s surgeon something of a disservice. Even with a top class 3D printed implant it still takes some serious artistry and commitment on the vet’s part to make sure it stays in place.

Coomer said: “Certainly the way he was walking on the leg post-operation validates the decisions to keep the leg. He’s made a pretty decent recovery. He still limps a bit when he gets up in the morning, but he warms out of it pretty quickly, jumps in and out of the car and wants to go on bush walks and hikes.”

Leroy underwent chemotherapy after the surgery, but there was no sign of any recurrence two months later. So it looks like this lucky dog has beaten this potentially fatal disease with the help of 3D printing.

Just a few years ago, custom, 3D printed implants were the stuff of science fiction for human beings. Now they are a reality and we have seen everything from bone implants to a 3D printed beak for a parrot and a prosthetic foot for a penguin.

Additive manufacturing has brought the costs for these tailor-made implants and prostheses under control, which means that the human race can look forward to a new dawn in medical science. We can take our best friends along for the ride, too.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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