A cancer patient has recently undergone the world’s first operation to implant a 3D printed titanium rib cage and sternum, proving the viability of this new technology in the medical field.
The 54-year-old Spanish man who has undergone the operation was suffering from sarcoma, a cancerous tumor that grew around his chest wall and sternum. The only way to remove the tumor was to remove portions of his rib cage as well, according to Medical Daily.
A typical rib cage implant would consist of a flat titanium plate with screws to reinforce the structure of the rib cage, but these have the risk of loosening over time in addition to other complications. Additionally, because of the patient’s unique situation, the implant needed to be customized. According to CNET, a normal metal sheet would not have worked, so a 3D printed implant was necessary.
The 3D printed rib cage and sternum was printed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), a government scientific research organization based in Australia. The Australian medical device company Anatomics created the implant design based off of 3D CT scans of the patient’s chest wall and sent it over to CSIRO’s Lab 22, which houses the AU$1.3 million Acram printer. The printer operates using an electron beam to melt titanium powder into a 3D object.
“3D-printing works by imputing a 3D digital CAD file into a computer and then that computer talks to the machine,” said Alex Kingsbury of CSIRO in an interview with ABC News. “The machine then puts down layer upon layer of material, and each layer is fused. As each layer is fused, you then start to build up a part as your layers increase.”
The chest implant contains a titanium plate that will be placed over the sternum and has “limbs” that mimic the missing parts of the ribs, which will be screwed into the remaining rib cage to secure it in place.
“We were able to design an implant with a rigid sternal core and semi-flexible titanium rods to act as prosthetic ribs attached to the sternum,” explained Anatomics CEO Andrew Batty.
Just 12 days after the surgery, the patient was discharged from the hospital and has since been recovering.
The successful operation presents a host of new possibilities in the use of 3D printing in medicine. Current research is being spearheaded by scientists at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. They hope to be able to use 3D printing to print models of areas of a patient’s body that will be operated on for surgeons to examine beforehand, in addition to “scaffolds,” printed models that would be used to replace body parts, like the printed rib cage for the cancer patient, according to ABC.
“Our hospital of the future, from our point of view, is going to have the patient go into hospital, you scan them, and immediately next to that operating table you can print them that scaffold,” explained Dr. Mia Woodruff, who leads the Biomaterials and Tissue Morphology Group at QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.
With the technology now in existence, Woodruff hopes that within the next few years a million 3D printers could be built for hospitals to transform the current process of surgery.