Health and Medicine

12-Year-Old Receives First 3D Printed Vertebra Implant

August 22, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Peking University Third Hospital

After a soccer injury revealed a malignant tumor on the spinal cord of a 12-year-old boy from China, he required extensive surgery at Peking University Third Hospital (PUTH). Doctors needed to remove second vertebra to prevent the cancer from spreading, and the bone required an implant afterward. The device used was created with a 3D printer, making the boy the first person ever to receive a vertebral implant crafted in this manner.

While there are traditional, pre-fabricated devices that can be implanted into the vertebral column, one made with a 3D printer offers certain advantages. It was designed to precisely match the morphology of his existing bone, which created a much better fit within the second vertebra and between the first and third vertebrae. Not only will this likely expedite healing time, it does not need to be anchored using cements or screws which have the potential to become loose over time.

Unlike traditional 3D printers that extrude plastic, this implant was made out of a titanium powder; titanium is a common material to use in orthopedic implants. It is also covered in small holes in order to allow the bone to grow into it, making the implant a permanent structure that doctors believe is in no danger of coming loose. 

Following the 5-hour-long surgery, the boy was fitted with a halo that will immobilize his head and neck for the next three months as he recovers. Five days after the surgery, he was still unable to speak, though he seemed to be in good spirits and was communicating with a white board. Doctors are confident he will recover well. 

Using 3D printed orthopedic implants appears to be gaining some traction and could revolutionize orthopedic surgery. Though this boy was the first to receive a 3D printed vertebra, doctors at PUTH have used 3D printed implants to replace worn out discs between vertebrae while another patient received an implant that relieved pressure his spine was putting on his nerves. Earlier this year a man from Cardiff received 3D printed implants for his face following a motorcycle accident, and surgeons in the Netherlands used a 3D printer to make a replacement skull for a woman.

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