As 3D printing technology continues to take the medical field by storm, 3D printed implants fit for human use have risen into prominence. From functional ear replacements to spinal implant parts, researchers are finding that 3D printing can potentially help mend almost any part of the human body. Now, it appears that tumors are next on the 3D printing hit-list; Australian neurosurgeon Dr. Ralph Mobbs has used this emerging technology to help treat a patient with an extremely hard-to-reach neck tumor. Mobbs, who works at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, was faced with an incredibly risky operation that most surgeons would not dare to attempt, for the location and reconstruction of the tumorous vertebrae was quite a difficult operation.
And, so, Mobbs turned to the Australian medical device company Anatomics in help 3D print the titanium vertebrae implant, as well as patient-specific anatomical models to help prep the surgeon for the operation. This is certainly not the first time that a 3D printed implant has been used in surgery, but it may be one of the most innovative examples thus far, and is considered by Mobbs to be the first 3D printed vertebrae implant successfully placed in the neck.
The surgery itself took 15 hours to complete, and according to Mobbs, the patient is now recovering well. Now, 15 hours may seem like a pretty lengthy operation, but prior to the availability of this 3D printed titanium implant, most surgeons would consider this operation to risky to even perform in the first place. “To be able to get the printed implant that you know will fit perfectly because you’ve already done the operation on a model … It was just a pure delight,” Mobbs said. “It was as if someone had switched on a light and said ‘crikey, if this isn’t the future, well then I don’t know what is’.”
Although the 3D printed titanium implant proved to be a success, Mobbs isn’t quite satisfied with the state of 3D printed implant technology just yet. The surgeon has been looking at more biocompatible materials for custom 3D scaffolding, particularly ones that are manufactured by the cells from the patient’s body, which Mobbs’ considers to be the ‘holy grail of medicine’. “There’s no doubt this is the next big wave of medicine,” Mobbs said. “For me, the holy grail of medicine is the manufacturing of bones, joints and organs on-demand to restore function and save lives.” Not to worry, Dr. Mobbs, these patient-specific stem cell-based biomaterials are already well on their way to the medical field, and are being researched by a number of institutions across the world. Even in your very own backyard!