Doctors at Peking University have successfully implanted the first 3D printed vertebrae in a young patient.
The patient, a 12 year old boy, had a malignant tumour in his spinal cord. After hours of specialized spinal cord surgery, doctors replaced a section of cancerous vertebra in his neck with the 3D printed piece.
3D printing creates layer upon layer of material in specific patterns or shapes to make a 3D object from a digital model. Materials in 3D printing are usually polymers and metals, and in this case, a titanium powder which is a traditional orthopedic implant material.
As far as tradition goes, that’s where the similarities end. Because of the limitations of traditional orthopedic implant manufacturing - normally in geometric-type shapes with less realistic shaping or conformity to the bones, implants typically don’t attach to the bone without orthopedic cement or screws.
The worldwide orthopedic market had global revenues of more than $36b in 2008. According to a new report by Freedonia, the demand for implantable medical devices in the United States alone is projected to increase 7.7 percent annually to $52 billion in 2015. The study reported that orthopedic implants will be one of the fastest growing and nanotechnology and biotechnology will fuel growth and demand to the market. With the Silver Economy coming of age, orthopedics is a high growth market.
Because 3D printing is flexible, based on and created from a digital model, 3D printing enables orthopedic implants to be printed in any shape. This opens the door to hundreds of possibilities that weren’t available before. Now, instead of cement or screws, the implant is more in line or matches the bone around it.
In the case of the boy’s 3D implant, the doctor’s took this one step further and made tiny pores in the implant so the bones can grow into the implants which secures the device and eliminates cement and screws.
“Although the probability is very low, it is possible that under long-term pressure from inside the body, traditional implants might plug into bones gradually, or become detached from bones. But there will be no such problems for 3-D printed implants,” said Liu Zhongjun, Director, Orthopedics Department, Peking University.