Innovation

World's First 3D-Printed Vertebrae Saves Man With Chordoma Cancer From Becoming A Quadriplegic

3D printed vertebrae
The world's first 3D-printed vertebrae was implanted in a Chordoma cancer patient. Ralph Mobbs

What a time it is for 3D printing in health care. Over the past year alone, doctors have successfully separated conjoined twins, given a cancer patient a titanium rib cage, and created muscle, bone, and ears from 3D-printing materials. This list continues to grow; in December 2015, a man in his 60s received the first 3D-printed vertebrae. Without it, he would have become fully paralyzed.  

The patient, Drage Josevski, suffers from a condition known as Chordoma cancer, a type of malignant tumor that “can occur in the bones of the spine and base of the skull,” according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It’s so rare, in fact, that it occurs in only 1 percent of all malignant bone tumors, which make up about 0.2 percent of all cancers. One case per million are diagnosed each year, and about one in 125,000 people currently live with the disease.

Because of Chordoma’s proximity to so many vital structures in the head and spine, it’s very difficult to treat. In Josevski’s case, the tumor had formed on the top two vertebrae in his neck — the ones that play roles in swiveling and tilting the head. The more the tumor grew, the more of a chance Josevski had of it severing his spine, turning him into a quadriplegic.

Dr. Ralph Mobbs, an Australian neurosurgeon, took charge of treating the tumor, and relied on 3D printers and Australian medical device manufacturer Anatomics. In a combined effort, they were able to create exact replicas of the two vertebrae made out of titanium, according to Mashable. Anatomics even created entire replicas of Josevski’s spinal anatomy for doctors to conduct practice runs before the surgery.

“3D printing of body parts is the next phase of individualized health care,” Mobbs told The ABC Australia. “To restore bones, joints, [and] organs with this type of technology really is super exciting. [H]ere is our opportunity to really take it out there and to keep pushing the boundaries on the whole 3D-printed body part business.”

Mobbs described the surgery as “particularly complicated and long and difficult.” It lasted 15 hours, and involved “exposure at the top of the neck where the neck and the head meets. It's essentially disattaching the patient's head from his neck and taking the tumour out and reattaching his head back onto his neck."

Though it was considered an overall success, there was one complication. The surgery was completed through Josevski’s mouth, which stayed open the entire time. Two months afterward, Josevski’s daughter said he is still struggling to speak and eat properly — Mobbs expects the complication will fix itself over the next few months. On the bright side, Josevski has full motion in his head and neck, which is tumor-free.

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