Bone grafts have long been used to help patients suffering from broken or damaged bones heal, and implants, or scaffolds, are used to surgically hold all of the damaged fragments of bone together. Over the last several years, doctors have been using 3D printing technology to produce these implants. Last winter, a group of researchers from Nottingham Trent University (NTU) in the UK were studying how to improve the strength and durability of 3D printed bone implants in order to promote more successful bone repairs. Now, a new NTU project is focusing on lifelike 3D printed replica human vertebrae as part of pre-surgical training.

Professor Philip Breedon, with NTU’s Design for Health and Wellbeing Group, said, “Consultants undertaking delicate and precise procedures like spinal surgery need as much knowledge and experience as possible as part of their surgical training before going into live operations.”

“One error can lead to catastrophic, life-changing consequences for a patient, so it’s imperative that surgeons can prepare themselves thoroughly.”

“This research will enable clinicians to experience how performing spinal surgery feels both physically and mentally, but in a safe training environment.”

Internal structure of a human bone.

The goal of the project is to help surgeons in training know how it really feels to drill into vertebrae, or partly remove it, before working on actual human patients in live operations. The 3D printed replica vertebrae models act, and feel, like actual bone tissue, with hard outer layers and a softer center. Thanks to a powder 3D printing technique, the models can mimic the porosity of real bone.

NTU is leading the project, which is taking place in collaboration with a visiting NTU professor, consultant spinal surgeon Professor Bronek Boszczyk, of Nottingham University Hospitals Trust.

“This is an innovative project which has resulted in the development of spinal models which look, feel and behave like real bone,” said Professor Boszczyk. “These models will enable surgeons to practice very delicate procedures in a training environment which will give clinicians increased confidence before they undertake real spinal operations.”

To get accurate bone representations from people with conditions like scoliosis, individual models can also be created from CT scan data.

The bone models are 3D printed in PLA material and a binding agent, then coated in polyester; the interior is made of polyurethane, and silicone is used to make the discs between vertebrae.

Currently, the models are being created for surgeons who will be performing procedures such as laminectomies, where they may have to remove bone tissue to relieve a patient’s trapped nerves. But the next stage of the project will be to 3D print replica bones with varying levels of strength, so surgeons will be able to get the feel for operating on people with conditions like osteoporosis.

Joseph Meeks, an NTU postgraduate student from Yorkshire, developed the 3D printed bone technology to fulfill part of his MSc in Medical Product Design; until today, his design work was included in a public exhibition for NTU’s Postgraduate Design Exhibition 2017.

“Until a surgeon goes into a live operation, he or she has very little knowledge of how it feels to perform spinal surgery,” Meeks said. “This research provides consultants with a realistic representation of spinal surgery which allows them to learn in a safe and calm environment. By better communicating these experiences, we can improve the skills of surgeons in the classroom and help enhance operative outcomes for patients in real life.”

Joe Meeks with a model spine [Image: Nottingham Trent University]

We often see 3D technology used to train surgeons, whether it’s through realistic 3D printed models or virtual reality simulations. With any luck, NTU’s 3D printed vertebrae models will hit the classroom sometime in the next few years to train the next generation of surgeons.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com, or share your thoughts below. 

[Source: NTU]

 

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