Joint replacements are currently some of the most common orthopaedic operations performed in the UK (generally as a result of an ageing population) with the vast majority of replacement parts being of a stock size and shape. People don’t really come in a stock shape, so we can see deterioration and ineffective results when surgeons attempt to address difficult or particularly unique cases.
One such case was that of a Swedish 15 year old with the congenital disease neurofibromatosis. This results in multiple benign tumours occurring in many tissues and often affects bone growth. A neurofibroma in her pelvis caused severe deformation of her left hip, resulting in a loss of structurally sound bone and the function of that joint, leaving her wheelchair bound.
Doctors saw no real treatment options, as her unique bone structure would not support a traditional replacement. Based on images produced via a computed tomography (CT) scan, Belgian company
Mobelife designed and built a bespoke hip replacement using additive 3D printing, more specifically, 3D Selective Laser Sintering.
This technology uses a laser, focused at different depths in a bed of metallurgic powder, the laser causes the powder to melt and bind. This can be used to build highly specific and complex structures in layers. The powder can then be blown away, leaving behind your desired structure as one solid piece. Materials such as titanium and steel and many more can be manipulated using this technique.
The implant was created as a one-off and is entirely unique to the shape of the patient’s hip, making use of areas of greater structural rigidity and ensuring a perfect fit.
As a result of the creation and implantation, the teenager is now able to leave her wheelchair behind and take a walk, unassisted as well as start to re-attend school, something that would not have been possible otherwise.
As 3D printing becomes more popular in it seems, all aspects of life, the applications of this kind of technology are somewhat mind-boggling, and could usher in a new era of personalised medicine.
Another experimental use of 3D printing is that of skin; directly printing skin cells onto severe burns or patients with severe skin damage. This technology involves scanning, and printing new skin cells directly onto the patient simultaneously, a very Elysium-esque technology which is surprisingly close to being within our grasp.
As engineering, medical, design, chemical and many other research fields meld into more multi-disciplinary teams, the potential for further innovation and progression are huge.
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