Surgeons are using astonishingly accurate 3D printed bones to help fix severe fractures, speeding up recovery and saving patients from repeat operations – and even amputations.
The injured area is scanned using a technique similar to an X-ray, so a computer model of the bone can be created. This is then used to fashion a replica of the fractured bone using a 3D printer, allowing doctors to plan repair procedures beforehand – and making the operation ‘idiot-proof’, according to the British surgeon pioneering the method.
About 35,000 Britons each year suffer a bone fracture that does not heal correctly. Infections, smoking and certain medications are typically to blame. However, it can also happen for unknown reasons.
These fractures lead to long-term pain and disability and can be corrected only through surgery to realign the bone and fix it in place using metal plates and screws.
To achieve perfect alignment, operations often have to be repeated several times, costing the NHS an average of £60,000 per patient a year. In up to ten cases a week, repeated surgery fails, leaving amputation as the only option.
The new technique, developed by a team led by Professor Anan Shetty, director of stem-cell research at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, uses a combination of 3D printing and stem-cell therapy.
Doctors take a special type of CT scan of the bone from several angles, which is then used to create a 3D model of the limb on a computer. Often, new bone has grown that needs to be removed, after which a plate is used to fix the bone into the correct position.
Surgeons plan how the operation will be carried out beforehand and what the bone will look like after surgery on the computer screen. A life-size model of the bone post-operation is created using a 3D printer – a special machine that creates ‘sculptures’ by building up thousands of wafer-thin layers of plastic. The team uses this to prepare the steel plate that will hold the bone in place while it heals.
This is normally done during the operation itself, which takes longer and has a higher risk of trauma and blood loss. Using the 3D technology method and fitting the plate on the model beforehand, surgery takes just 30 minutes, compared to several hours needed in previous bone-fracture procedures, and many patients go home the same day.
The surgeon cuts away a section of bone to correct the damage, and fixes it in its new position using the plate fitted on the 3D printed model beforehand. To speed up the healing process, Prof Shetty and his team also use stem-cell treatment by taking bone marrow from the patient’s own hip.
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