A team of scientists from Ontario’s Veterinary College (OVC) and Cornell University used a 3D printer to save the life of a cancer-suffering daschund. The procedure marks a breakthrough in veterinary reconstruction surgery with possible implications for future use in humans.
Patches, a 9-year-old daschund, was suffering from a tumor that was rapidly growing on the top of her skull. Starting as a small bump, the malign object had “ran out of room on the top of her head,” said Patches’ owner Danielle Dymeck, as quoted by The New York Times.
A trip to the vet led Ms. Dymeck to Dr. Galina Hayes – a small-animals surgeon over at Cornell University. The severity of Patches’ case, however, caused Dr. Hayes to turn to Dr. Michelle Oblak – a veterinary surgical oncologist from Ontario’s Veterinary College.
To prepare for the upcoming surgery Dr. Oblak worked alongside a team of software engineers to create a 3D-printed model of Patches’ skull and tumor. This allowed Dr. Oblak to do a mock-up surgery on the digital representation of Patches’ skull to determine the best way to perform the real-life removal.
The surgery, however, was only half the battle. “Oblak and Hayes had to replace about 70 per cent of the top surface of the dog’s skull, which left the brain unprotected over a large area” as quoted by the OVC. The virtual pretend surgery allowed Dr. Oblak’s team to create an accurate model of the 3D-printed titanium plate that was to replace the missing bone.
“There’s very little room for error. We’re talking less than two millimetres or else the plate wouldn’t fit,” Dr. Oblak said for The Canadian Press.
In the end the actual surgery and fitting of the skull cap were successful. “She was asleep for about five hours, and within about half an hour after surgery, Patches was alert and looking around. It was amazing,” said Oblak for OVC.
This is not the first use of 3D printing in veterinary medicine, however, it marks the first one done at such a large scale. Back in 2014 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) published an article about the use of 3D printing in veterinary medicine tracing the technology back to the 1980s.
“But we’ve only seen it emerge into clinical practice in the last few years, as many of the patents on this technology are expiring and the marketplace is becoming more competitive as a result,” said Steven Lucero, mechanical engineer and manager of the Translating Engineering Advances to Medicine Prototyping Facility at the University of California-Davis as quoted by AVMA.
Cornell University is among the pioneers of using 3D printing in veterinary medicine. In 2009 a team of Cornell veterinary surgeons used the technology to create a model of a dog’s deformed leg and manufacture replacement “bones.”
Now there are hopes that the practice could be transferred beyond vet care.
The OVC quotes Dr. Oblak saying: “By performing these procedures in our animal patients, we can provide valuable information that can be used to show the value and safety of these implants for humans.
These implants are the next big leap in personalized medicine that allows for every element of an individual’s medical care to be specifically tailored to their particular needs.” The researcher also pointed out that such procedures lag behind in human medicine due to regulations. This is not to say that 3D printing hasn’t already found a place in human medicine.
Last year TechCrunch ran a story on “How 3D printing is revolutionizing healthcare as we know it”. The article looks at current and future examples of 3D printing used in human healthcare for example in manufcaturing prostethics and skin. Cellink reported on a team of scientists that have sucesfully printed and transplanted skin and organs in mice which resulted in a prototype of 3D printer capable of creating human skin.
Harvard Business Review has also published a piece on the topic pointing out that “As already-low manufacturing prices go down, 3D printing makes customizations more possible and, consequently, formerly impossible treatments easier.” The Economist predicted in 2017 that the healthcare industry is mere years away from being able to use 3D-printed human organs:“[B]ioprinted tissue is already being sold for drug testing, and the first transplantable tissues are expected to be ready for use in a few years’ time.”
These are only some of the numerous publications that discuss current and near-future applications of 3D printing in human healthcare. As Pacthes’ case shows, medical profesionals are becoming more able at doing complex procedures thanks to advanced technology. From molding accurate anatomical models to creating replacement tissue 3D printers have come a long way since their inception in the 80s.