by GENE HOWINGTON
In a stunning demonstration of the positive side of the development of 3-D (a.k.a. additive) printing technology, a team of innovative Dutch surgeons led by Dr. Bon Verweij with the help of Australian prosthetic company Anatomics have “replaced” a human skull with a plastic prosthetic skull. Three months ago, the surgeons working at University Medical Center Utrecht performed a 23 hour operation to correct problems a young woman was having due to thickening of her cranium caused by a rare bone disease. The pressure created by her excess bone growth – which had increased the thickness of her skull walls from the normal 1.5 centimeters thick to 5 centimeters (almost 2 inches) thick – was causing the unnamed 22 year-old woman to have severe headaches, go blind and have increasing problems with her motor skills.
This custom printed prosthetic is a vast improvement over the previous methods used in these kinds of corrective surgeries. According to the Anatomics website:
Acrylic implants are typically fixed using titanium plates and screws. With the advances in clamp fixation systems, Anatomics has developed a new technique that prepares the acrylic implant and allows for simple and fast fixation using products like the CranioFix Titanium Clamp System. Some neurosurgeons believe this technique saves time and provides better stability and fixation.
Generally, cranial implants manufactured from acrylic are thinner than the patient’s skull to provide space for swelling and scar tissue. This has often resulted in clamping systems not being a viable option for custom implant fixation. Anatomics has overcome this problem by developing an acrylic implant product that is thickness matched at the skull wall yet still provides space for swelling and scar tissue. The implant can also include grooves for simple Craniofix placement to avoid further drilling, cutting or shaping.”
Like most scientific and technological advances, this was preceded by a procedure last year where an implant made by Connecticut based Oxford Performance Materials was used to replace 75% of a skull. While the OPM made prosthetic was made from a plastic known as polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), the new prosthetic from Anatomics is made from an as yet unidentified mystery plastic. The young woman who underwent this radical “skull transplant” is reportedly doing well. Three months after the procedure, she is back at work, pain free and can see again. According to Dr. Verweij in a statement released by UMC Utrecht, “The patient has fully regained her vision, she has no more complaints, she’s gone back to work and there are almost no traces that she had any surgery at all.”
Given the recent media coverage given to additive printing (including several columns by this author in another forum) raising concerns about the technology’s use in weapons manufacturing, it is important to keep in mind most advances in technology are a two-edged sword. Printed guns are a small part of the picture. Consider that it isn’t just “printing bones” we are looking at with the development of additive printing technology. From human hearts to stem cells to lungs, additive printing is creating medical options for patients at an exciting rate and options that simply didn’t exist just a few years ago. We should as a society watch this developing technology closely to both be on guard for potential abuses but also be looking for new ways to save lives and improve the quality of life.
What do you think?