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Over the last several years, the news regarding 3D printing and health has been astounding. Learning about the latest advances in biomedical printing can sometimes feel like reading a science fiction novel, and only a few decades ago it would have been impossible to imagine that some of the techniques that have been developed would ever be more than fantastical plot devices. As 3D printing becomes a regular tool for researchers in the area of human health, however, these advances are increasing in pace and we can expect to see exciting new ideas and continuing refinements.

Peking University Third Hospital’s Orthopedics Department recently announced one of these new developments. They have been undertaking clinical trials of a new 3D printed orthopedic type – artificial vertebral bodies. These tests represent the first time that vertebral bodies created by 3D printers have been used in human bodies. The results thus far have been very promising. The Director of the Orthopedics Department, Liu Zhongjun, expressed optimism for the continued success of the implants, stating that all of the patients who received implants last year are recovering well.

f04da2db11221375101246The material that is being used to print the implants is nothing new, a titanium powder that has been in use for creating implants for decades. What is new is the way in which 3D printing allows the shapes of the orthotics to be created. As we have seen with knee and hip replacements, that have been created with 3D printing, is that there is an incredible flexibility in terms of the forms that can be generated. Rather than relying on boxy shapes that are easier to produce, the 3D printer’s ability to create extremely complex geometries means a reduction in the amount of additional hardware necessary to force a generic implant to stay in place. Another benefit is the porous nature of the printed implant which allows bones to grow into the implant creating a natural bond.

The human side of this revolution in implant technology is truly moving. One woman suffering from cervical spondylosis, a degenerative condition of the cervical spine, found that her symptoms disappeared only a few days after her implant surgery was complete. Another patient, a 32-year-old man whose spinal condition left him with little ability to walk and a continuous numbness in his extremities has found his condition greatly improved after the 3D printed vertebral bodies were implanted.

The 3D Printed Implant

The 3D Printed Implant

Perhaps one of the most celebrated cases involves treating a spinal cord injury in a 12-year-old boy who had first injured his neck playing soccer and then was diagnosed with a vertebral tumor. There were only a limited number of hospitals in China that were equipped to handle the complicated surgery that he would need in order to regain his ability to move. At one of those hospitals, 3D printing was used to create an artificial vertebral body for placement between his first and third vertebra to allow him to recover much of his range of motion.

Preparing for neck implant for 12-year-old patient.

Preparing for neck implant for 12-year-old patient.

The surgery is the first time that a 3D printed implant has been used for vertebra operation. While the recovery is long and arduous, the ability to create the complex shape of the vertebra, particular to his spine, means that the surgery was able to be executed more easily and that the resulting implant has a much greater strength than it would have had otherwise.

Chinese hospitals have been interested in integrating 3D printing technology since at least 2002. They have seen the potential for the creation of life-like organ models that simulate the conditions to be found during surgical procedures, and prepare the medical staff for complicated operations. 3D printing has also been used to create models for surgical implants for years; in 2008 doctors at the General Hospital of Guangzhou Military Command began to use this modeling as a regular part of their approach. Qi Xiangdong, a senior cosmetic surgeon at the military hospital expressed his hope that more hospitals will embrace the potential that 3D printing represents:

“It is great that more Chinese hospitals manage to develop 3D technology related medical solutions for patients. With the technology, doctors can provide better treatment to patients.”

Let’s hear your thoughts on yet another breakthrough within the field of medicine, thanks to 3D printing.  Discuss in the 3D printed Vertebra forum thread on 3DPB.com. Check out the video below, provided by CCTV News about this amazing work:

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