Jan 13, 2016 | By Alec

Over the past few years the number of 3D printers used by medical professionals has been skyrocketing, but in the majority of cases they seem to be used for little more than excellent surgical models for prepping operations. However, a case from Virginia serves as a reminder that the technology can already make significant impact as an implant manufacturing tool. Ruth Smith-Leigh definitely agrees, as her leg was saved thanks to the help of a 3D printed implant. After suffering a terrible injury in a car crash, she was told her leg needed to be amputated. Fortunately, a 3D printed alternative instead enables her to continue to walk.

It’s the kind of story you dread whenever a loved one steps into a car. Ruth Smith-Leigh, from Halifax, Virginia,  was driving home after a birthday party one night – with her two young boys strapped in in the back – when her car was hit head-on. Fortunately, her boys were unscathed, but Smith-Leigh herself was partially crushed, leaving her with a severely injured left leg. “Something was wrong with my leg, but I just thought it was a simple break,” Smith-Leigh said of the incident. Taken to Duke University Hospital in Durham, she was told she needed emergency surgery. “The doctor actually told me that I had to have it amputated,” Smith-Leigh said, adding that her bones were left so damaged that they could not be reset.

Fortunately, Smith-Leigh also got in touch with Duke orthopedic surgeon Samuel Adams, MD, a foot and ankle specialist who instead focused on the possibilities. He recommended developing a state-of-the-art 3D printed custom bone implant to support the severely damaged bones. “[The machine] 3D prints a titanium cage to replace the missing bone,” Adams explained. This case acts like a set of scaffolding that evenly distributes forces around the entire leg, supporting the remaining bone and replacing the missing bits. Crucially, it maintains the leg’s structural integrity and encourages bone to regrow. “It's a scaffold. That bone will grow into a truss system, and through the center of truss system is a titanium rod,” Adams says. “Her own bones will grow into her implant and it's just as strong as her native bone, if not stronger.”

This FDA-approved 3D printed implant is thus capable of revolutionizing the way patients with severe leg trauma can be treated. “It’s a miracle,” the patient said of the breakthrough. “It is the most awesome experience ever. I am able to wear a shoe with an ankle support.” It was designed especially for Smith-Leigh by a 3D imaging specialists from Texas-based company 4Web, who used her CT scans to build the model.

While it all took some time to develop, Smith-Leigh finally underwent surgery four months after her car accident in February 2015. This was followed by an extensive rehabilitation process that took six weeks. In November, she was finally able to go back to work. However, the healing process is still underway, and x-rays have shown that her bone is steadily growing within the 3D printed scaffolding. “I can have a normal life. Considering the alternative, I’ll take that any day,” she says of the success. While the leg will never be as flexible as it was before, it definitely beats sitting in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.

According to Adams, this very new technique is the future of implants. Smith Leigh was the first person in the Southeast US to receive a 3D printed implant, but more will definitely follow. “Before this, we didn’t have anything to replace a large defect. Now we have this technology,” the specialist said. While some successes have been realized by using cadaver bones, 3D printed implants are also a much stronger alternative, the surgeon added.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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