Astonishing advancements in 3D printing are transforming the prospects for severely ill and injured patients.

Most people know tuberculosis as a disease of the lungs, but that’s not always the case.

For a 32-year-old woman in India, the disease manifested in her spine – in 10 different vertebrae, thanks to a lowered immune system caused by drugs she was taking for infertility. Her condition deteriorated quickly; the disease caused such extensive damage to her first, second and third cervical vertebrae that she no longer had any support between her skull and lower spine.

A 3d printed vertebrea
A 3d printed vertebra Photograph: supplied to by Sanjay Kumar Pathak at Global Health Care in New Delhi

As a result, the woman’s head was sliding forward and her posture curved in a way that obstructed her spinal cord, resulting in progressive weakness in her limbs. She was also at risk of quadriplegia and even death, if her respiratory nerves were to become compressed. But this young woman is going to be just fine, as impossible as that sounds.

Surgeons at Medanta – the Medicity in Gurgaon, India, replaced the woman’s damaged first, second and third vertebrae with a 3D printed titanium implant in a 10-hour surgery, closing the gap between her skull and spine and allowing her to stand and walk normally again. It was the first time such a procedure had been performed in India, and among the first in the world, following similar operations in China that first took place in 2014 and a surgery that was performed a year ago in Australia.

“Given the complexity of this case, the use of 3D printing technology has helped us in bringing a successful outcome,” Dr V Anand Naik, senior consultant (spine surgery) at Medanta’s Bone & Joint Institute, told the Indo-Asian News Service. Dr Naik led the surgical team that operated on the woman. “The patient today on 12 post-operative days is now walking with minimal support, all her pain has gone, her voice and dysphasia has recovered completely and, most importantly, her life was saved by this technique.”

A 3d printed vertebrae inside the spine of a woman in India, 2017
A 3d printed vertebrae inside the spine of a woman in India, 2017Photograph: supplied to by Sanjay Kumar Pathak at Global Health Care in New Delhi

Sanjay Kumar Pathak of Global Health Care in New Delhi told that the titanium implant, customised to perfectly fit the patient’s spine, was designed at his company. CT and MRI scans helped create a replica of the woman’s spine so that the gaps between her vertebrae could be measured to ensure that the final printed vertebra would fit perfectly.

The patient, a teacher, is recovering quickly, which is incredible considering the severity of her condition before the surgery. Just a few years ago, there would have been very little hope for her, but 3D printing is changing the prognosis of many severely ill and injured patients.

“These techniques have opened a new avenue wherein any type of complex reconstruction can be done in the spine with less collateral damage,” said Dr Naik.

The advancements that 3D printing has brought to the medical field are nothing short of astonishing. We may not yet be at the point where we can 3D print full human organs and transplant them into patients, but the fact that we can even talk about such a thing as a feasible possibility shows just how quickly and dramatically this technology is changing the industry.

Although 3D printed organs are often talked about as the ultimate goal in medical 3D printing, and companies such as Organovo have already made an impact on pharmaceutical research with their 3D printed liver and kidney tissue, many of the biggest, most life-altering changes so far have been thanks to 3D printing’s ability to create customised implants and organ models. The young woman in India isn’t the only person to have been saved from paralysis by 3D printing; it would have seemed laughable a short time ago, but stopping or even reversing paralysis is now possible thanks to the advanced spinal surgeries and implants 3D printing allows.

When dealing with the spine, there’s no room for error or imperfect fit, and the fact that no two bodies are exactly the same has rendered the “one size fits all” implants of the past ineffective or even harmful for many patients. Today’s advanced 3D technology allows for a perfect copy of an individual patient’s anatomy to be printed in plastic, meaning that surgeons can study the affected area or even practice procedures before operating. In addition, the design freedom that 3D printing allows means that implants can be produced that perfectly match that patient’s anatomy. We may not have 3D printed organs yet, but customised 3D printed implants are already synthetically reproducing – and replacing – parts of the human body.


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