3D printing has really come into its own in the last year or so. From guns to cars, many researchers are now focused on using 3D printing to improve and tweak existing technology. We’ve been able to aid the body’s own repair of damaged bones for a relatively long time, but now we’re ready to use 3D printing to completely replace damaged bone. Now, 75% of a patient’s skull has been successfully replaced with 3D-printed material, and this is just the beginning.
Back in February, the FDA officially gave the go-ahead for use of the OsteoFab Patient Specific Cranial Device (OPSCD) in the United States. First, the bone in question is scanned to create a CAD file. Then polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) is put down in countless layers by the Oxford Performance Materials (OPM) company in Connecticut to create a replacement part that fits perfectly. Unlike metallic materials, this plastic is radiolucent, allowing X-rays to pass through. When the OPSCD is in place, doctors will still be able to X-ray the patients. In addition, the OPSCD is osteoconductive, so it can work as scaffolding for growth of the patient’s own bones. (See: What is 3D printing?)
On March 4, the first surgery using this method in the United States was completed successfully. OPM estimates 300 to 500 patients in the US need skull replacements every month, and the use of 3D printing to offer custom replacement parts would be a godsend. Injured soldiers, accident victims, and cancer patients could all benefit from the OPSCD going forward. These researchers aren’t satisfied with just the skull, though.
OPM is currently prepping other bone manufacturing processes for submission to the FDA, and it’s easy to see why. Each new bone replacement type could net the company upwards of $ 100 million if it passes FDA scrutiny. Obviously, the skull is a difficult body part to work with, so OPM’s president Scott DeFelice is optimistic that his company will get approval for less crucial areas of the body. If a skull replacement fails, the results could be catastrophic. An elbow replacement? Less so.
Who would have thought manufacturing processes and living tissue would work so well together? From human hearts to stem cells to lungs, 3D printing and related technologies are offering patients and doctors options where there were none just a few years ago. Obviously, keeping healthy tissue healthy is still our best bet. However, the lifespan and quality of life of the injured continues to skyrocket. Replacing damaged tissue is becoming more reliable and survivable. At this point, it’s only a matter of time before every part in our bodies becomes effectively replaceable.
Now read: The first 3D-printed human stem cells