In the latest edition of “I’m sorry, they did what?” a team of South Korean surgeons has successfully transplanted a 3D printed skull into a patient. The 60-year-old woman went to Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul after she developed a sudden headache, and a CT scan showed that she was suffering from a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage, a rare condition that involves bleeding between the brain and the tissues that cover it. It’s obviously a life-threatening condition, and one that required immediate surgery.The surgical team, led by Professors Kwon Jeong-tek and Lee Mu-yeol from CAUH’s neurosurgery department, first had to block the blood supply to parts of the brain to prevent further bleeding. They then removed a portion of the patient’s skull to relieve pressure caused by the swelling of the brain. As if things weren’t dire enough for the poor woman, her brain then collapsed in the portion of the skull that had been removed, requiring a skull transplant.
Though it sounds unbelievable, surgeons have replaced large portions of patients’ skulls via 3D printing before. Recently doctors were able to save the life of a baby with hydrocephalus by 3D printing and implanting a titanium skull in three pieces, and a young woman was able to return to normal after a terrible accident thanks to a large 3D printed plate that surgeons attached to her damaged skull. For the Korean woman, help came from the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) in Gangwon, where technicians used her CT scans to model a customized reproduction of her skull, which they then 3D printed in pure titanium. The new skull fit the woman perfectly, and the operation was concluded successfully.
While surgeons have been replacing portions of patients’ skulls with synthetic implants and plates for some time, the technology has always been imperfect. According to Dr. Kwon, materials used for skull replacements have included cement, which is obviously less than ideal due to its weight, plus it’s difficult to shape such materials into the exact shape of a patient’s skull. 3D printed titanium is strong, lightweight, and can be designed to perfectly fit the patient. Plus, 3D printing a new skull is not only cost-effective but fast – and about to get faster, which is wonderful news for those who need emergency replacements as soon as possible.
Head injuries are some of the most horrific and dangerous things that can happen to a person, and I admit that while reading about most medical procedures doesn’t make me cringe, brain surgeries make me want to crawl under a table. So much can be lost from a brain injury or ailment – if not life entirely, one can lose the ability to speak, walk, or even move at all, not to mention the memories and personality aspects that can vanish. The fragility and complexity of the brain puts it far behind other organs when it comes to the development of 3D printed tissue for eventual transplant potential, but the ability to reproduce its protector, the skull, is a major step towards minimizing the damage caused by head injury and illness. How do you think this will impact future surgeries of this type? Discuss in the 3D Printed Skull forum over at 3DPB.com.