July 16, 2015 | By Simon

Not very long along ago, we could go days - weeks even - without hearing about the use of additive manufacturing in the medical industry.  These days however, we are learning new ways of how medical professionals are learning how to leverage the technology to their benefit multiple times per day.  Thankfully, these developments not only translate to more effective surgical procedures, but also lower costs and faster recover times.  

Now, the same techniques that have been used to help surgeons perform everything from hip surgery to custom face implants are also being leveraged to perform surgery on the smallest of humans - unborn babies.

Historically, various factors of traditional surgical methods have been risky for both the mother and the fetus including preterm labor, maternal bleeding and exposure to anesthetic gases, which can affect brain development.    

Recently, a multidisciplinary team of bioengineers, fetal surgeons, maternal fetal medicine specialists and fetal radiologists at the Colorado Fetal Care Center at Children's Hospital Colorado have been combining their specialities to better understand and ultimately utilize 3D scans to create 3D models of and repair a variety of fetal defects - such as those that may cause severe physical problems later on in life - without the risks associated with more traditional surgical procedures.   

In April of 2015, the team performed a surgery that was the first of its kind using a 3D printed replica of an unborn baby's spine to assist in the surgical procedure.  The surgery was performed to repair a case of myelomeningocele, a common form of spina bifida that is diagnosed in 1 out of every 1,000 babies born.  The condition occurs when a section of the neural tube that runs along the spine fails to close.  Long-term effects can include the inability to walk, a lifetime of incontinence and the need for multiple surgical procedures during a child's life to treat complications (such as hydrocephalus, which results in brain swelling).     

Considering how much of a benefit 3D printing has provided for surgical procedures involving larger anatomical features, it’s no surprise that the team of specialists have been actively looking into using 3D printing for aiding their surgical procedures.  While the technology is currently being used to create accurate replicas, the very same technology is expected to be used to create ‘patches’ using a patient’s own cells to aid in the healing process, too.  

“Leveraging 3D technology is a huge step forward in the standardization of fetal surgical care - for this fetal condition and others,” explains Dr. Kenneth W. Liechty, a well-respected Maternal Fetal Surgery specialist who is a part of the Colorado team.  

“Eventually, 3D printing will be used to not only aid in the preoperative and intraoperative planning and care, but also to produce a "living" patch using the patient's own cells to aid in the healing process.”

Of course, just like in other areas of the medical industry, we’re still yet to see the true potential of additive manufacturing technologies - despite how far we might have come already.    

“We are only beginning to understand implications of 3D technologies in medical applications, and ongoing research holds tremendous potential for the development of patient-specific therapies,” adds Dr. Liechty.   

“Just recently we've watched our bioengineers create these models, and already we can see the future of surgical success starting to take shape.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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