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Chinese surgeons craft titanium bones with a 3D printer

The medical sector is one of the most vibrant areas for additive manufacturing at the moment, with the technology establishing itself as an invaluable tool, both for education and on the hospital floor. Perhaps the most exciting time during any period of intensive innovation is when a relatively untested technology or technique is successfully put into practice. This might be to complete an ambitious project that showcases the concept’s possibilities, to make a tangible difference in someone’s life, or (best of all) both. The latter was definitely the case in July of this year, when surgeons at China’s Shanghai Changzheng Hospital employed a 3D printer to create titanium alloy bone implants for a cancer patient.

The patient was suffering from a rare type of bone tumour in her spine — one that is notoriously difficult to treat. The tumour had affected six separate bones in her spine, which would all need to be removed to prevent the cancer from returning later. Suffice to say, this was an extremely challenging operation, which ran the risk of leaving the patient paralysed or dead if anything went wrong.

For medical implants of this nature, every element must be crafted with the absolute highest degree of precision. To craft the patient’s tailor-made bone implants, the team utilised a 3D model of the affected vertebrae, which would form the basis of the implants. Over the course of three weeks, the team designed the new bones in this virtual environment, then delivered them using a sophisticated metal 3D printer, to ensure the implants’ dimensions were captured with perfect accuracy. Crucially, the implants were designed in such a way that they eventually integrate with the patient’s natural bone material and mimic its behaviour, thanks to their microporous structure.

We are pleased to report that after an intensive 13 hours, the operation was successful, and the patient is now recovering slowly. As new materials are developed for medical 3D printing and the technology evolves to fulfil the sector’s stringent regulatory requirements, we expect success stories like this to become increasingly common, as more hospitals are inspired to explore 3D printing technology.