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One of the promises of 3D printing technology is for the customized creation of body parts. Making custom part replacement for important organs would be a bold action and a big breakthrough. However, for now, internal organs are still out of the question. What has been happening lately are a few instances of bone replacements.

During the 20th century, the use of prosthetic devices has gained ground, and has included artificial hips, knees, and others.

Bone is a prime candidate for 3D printing as the materials currently available have almost the same qualities as bone. It is also possible to create a 3D model of the bone based on patient scans and x-rays. There are other considerations besides just making the implant or replacement.

Dr. Gaurav Gupta, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, has conducted the successful implant of a portion of the skull. The patient was Christopher Cahill of New Brunswick, NJ. Gupta operated on Cahill to reduce a life-threatening swelling on the frontal lobe. Unfortunately, a portion of the skull could no longer be used due to infection. This was replaced by a 3D printed plastic portion created with the use of CT scans.

The procedure also required additional skin to cover the implant. This was created with the help of Dr. Tushar Patel, a partner at The Plastic Surgery Center located in Shrewsbury. Dr. Patel is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, who inserted the excess skin as a tissue expander in Cahill’s surgery.

3D Printed Skulls Change the Medical Landscape

In choosing to use a 3D printed device, Dr. Gupta turned to DeputSyntheses CMS for the cranial skull implant. The material chosen was made from polyetheretherketone (PEEK), which was biologically compatible with skull material, it also was strong and stable. Earlier operations of this kind used metal mesh to replace the portion of skull, however that was not as strong nor as precise as 3D printed PEEK.

The operation shows the promise of 3D printing in replacing bone. One advantage of 3D printing is that a variety of materials can be used. Potentially, different materials could be used for different purposes, organs or body parts. For instance, skin cells or stem cells could be grown and printed layer by layer to replace human skin.

The Cahill case is not the only 3D printing solution currently underway. In China a 3D printed prosthetic was placed onto a woman’s neck to replace 5 spinal vertebrae. This was the first time that vertebrae were replaced by 3D printed parts.

However, 3d printing body parts should not be viewed as a silver bullet or a magical new substance. It requires a lot of customization to make it work. No single solution will work for everyone. 3D printing solutions must be done on a case-to-case basis. A one-part technology, one-part technique will not work in all situations, solutions need to be tailored for each patient.

The potential for 3D printing is enormous. The process itself is only now coming into the mainstream. Dr. Gupta notes that mankind’s evolution has taken thousands of years, but during the 20th century, the use of prosthetic devices has gained ground, and has included artificial hips, knees, and others. He also noted that the merging of human tissue with devices can make life more comfortable and allows people to live longer.

3D printing offers new frontiers for surgeons in a variety of fields. Clearly this technology is on the cusp and will soon be far more widespread, with bold impact throughout the world.

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