Chinese physicians implant first 3-D printed vertebrae in child

Peking University physician Liu Zhongjun holding the 3-D printed vertebrae--Courtesy of Peking University

As 3-D printed implants gain ground as a viable surgical option, Chinese physicians have harnessed the new technology to successfully implant the first 3-D printed vertebrae in a young patient.

Doctors at Beijing's Peking University replaced a section of cancerous vertebrae in a 12-year-old boy's spinal cord with a 3-D printed piece created from titanium powder, potentially speeding up recovery times and creating a more flexible surgical model, Forbes reported. Unlike traditional implants, the device contains small pores that allow bones to grow into the device, eliminating the need for cement and screws.

"Although the probability is very low, it is possible that under long-term pressure from inside the body, traditional implants might plug into bones gradually, or become detached from bones. But there will be no such problems for 3-D printed implants," Liu Zhongjun, director of the Orthopedics Department at Peking University, told Forbes.

Peking University physicians aren't the only scientists delving into 3-D printed implants. In May 2013, doctors at the University of Michigan implanted a 3-D printed tracheal splint in an infant with a life-threatening breathing disorder. Physicians created a model of the device through a CT scan of the baby's respiratory tract and printed the implant with bioabsorbable plastic. Earlier this year, a consultant orthopedic surgeon at a U.K. hospital used the facility's 3-D printer to create a replacement hip out of titanium powder for an elderly cancer patient. Dr. Craig Gerrand and his team fused together the implant with a laser and implanted the pelvis using a standard hip replacement.

Three-dimensional printed implants could also offer an attractive source of revenue as orthopedics outfits look to cash in on a growing niche. The demand for implantable medical devices in the U.S. is expected to increase 7.7% annually to $52 billion in 2015, according to a report from Freedonia cited by Forbes, making it one of the fasted growing markets along with nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Companies have taken note, and are creating innovative products to capitalize on the technology. Kalamazoo, MI-based Stryker ($SYK) uses 3-D printing for its cementless, triathlon titanium knee system, and Expanding Orthopedics last month won FDA approval for the world's first 3-D expandable interbody cage to treat degenerative disk disease. Med tech giant Medtronic ($MDT) will use its new, state-of-the art R&D facility in Ireland for the center's 3-D printing capabilities and virtual operating room to develop new cardiovascular devices and therapies.

- read the Forbes article

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