Quickly, print me a bone
Rebuilding bodies with 3D printing
The creation of crowns for teeth and hearing aids are among the applications of 3D technology as it goes mainstream
Track cycling athlete Jason Laing’s arm was restored by 3D printing — and it helped save his life.
When Laing was training for a competition on a velodrome track in 2015 he suffered a seizure and hit the deck of the track head-on at a speed of about 70km/hour.
The impact caused multiple brain injuries, breakages, torn muscles, major internal bleeding and collapsed lungs. He had to be resuscitated twice.
Laing’s recovery was long and difficult, and he relied on occupational therapy and surgery. Gradually, he was able to communicate and function almost normally.
But last year doctors discovered that the subclavian artery in his right arm was being squeezed by bones that had failed to heal correctly. His brachial plexus nerve, which originates near the neck and shoulder, was also found to be damaged. This led him to lose feeling in his hand.
The situation was deadly: Laing was in danger of haemorrhaging if he sustained a fall, and that could kill him in seconds.
His options were few. Conventional surgery to treat such a condition was out of the question because of his brain injury. And without surgery he faced paralysis in his arm, the risk of haemorrhaging or even amputation.
But with his life at stake, Laing wasn’t willing to leave it there, and it was his experience as a jewellery maker that changed his life.
He used 3D printing to manufacture jewellery. Before his accident, he had also used it to help print bones that had been damaged in people’s faces, based on detailed information from CT scans.
"So when I was presented with the reality that my arm would
have to be amputated, I said to the doctor: ‘At least give me the option to fight for my own arm and my own life.’
"To do that I applied a combination of everything I had done before," Laing says.
Laing, together with the medical team, designed a way to simulate his surgery for practice, using virtual reality. They also created guides for cutting to ensure that nerves or arteries would not be sliced.
Eventually, they worked out a way to replace Laing’s bone with 3D-printed titanium implants, which was a world first.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. The technology is so new and so untested that some doctors walked away from it because of the risks. Also, approval had to be given by the SA Medical Research Council for the surgery to be done.
And while Laing’s experience was pioneering, there are other uses of 3D printing that are slowly becoming more mainstream.
Dentists, for example, now have the ability to 3D print a crown. In conventional dentistry a temporary crown would first be fitted, while a lab sculpted a permanent one.
The patient would return on another day to have the permanent crown fitted.
Today, sophisticated technology helps dentists design a digital crown. Once that process is complete, a printer the size of a microwave oven produces the permanent crown in about 10 minutes.
This means the dentist can fit a permanent crown in just one visit.
The same technology can be applied to manufacture removable dentures.
And the benefits of the new technology have extended to hearing aids. Before 3D printing, it took about a week to make a hearing aid; that has now been reduced to a few hours.
Today, most hearing aids are said to be 3D printed. These offer a better fit inside an ear, as the ear is scanned using lasers.
Other innovative printing techniques are slowly changing health care forever.
Abdul-Khaaliq Mohamed, an associate lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, is using a 3D printer to build a robotic prosthetic hand. He says electrical signals from the brain or from muscles control the hand, giving some level of the functionality that has been lost.
Mohamed says 3D printing is customisable, making it simple to make small changes quickly and fix problems as they arise.
The next frontier is bioprinting, a process of creating cell patterns using 3D printing, while preserving cell function.
This is the technology that will eventually give the world printed organs.