3D Printing Medical Tech: Team of Vets Replaced Most of a Pup's Skull

It's a technique that could help humans, too. 

by James Dennin

Patches is a nine year old dachshund from Willamsport, Pa who, thanks to the efforts of an international team of researchers may have just made medical history.

That’s because a 3D printed custom titanium plate was recently used to replace about 70 percent of Patches’ skull as part of a surgery to remove a serious brain tumor. It’s highly novel procedure, the first time such a surgery has been completed in North America, and, according to a statement, could create a road map for completing similar surgeries on humans, too. In the meanwhile, Patches is now cancer free.

“This is major for tumour [sic] reconstruction in many places on the head, limb prosthesis, developmental deformities after fractures and other traumas,” Dr. Michelle Oblak, whose research focuses on rapid 3D prototyping in canines, told University of Guelph news. “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.”

How 3D Printing Can Revolutionize Personalized Medicine

Oblak got involved in Patches’ case after a former colleague Dr. Galina Hayes, now a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, reached out to her for advice about the best way to operate on Patches’ tumor, a a multilobular osteochondrosarcoma that was starting to put pressure on the pup’s eye sockets and brain.

The successful surgery made use of a number of innovative techniques in what was ultimately a super high-tech team effort. Oblak worked with a rapid prototyping team at Ontario Veterinary School to develop a 3D map of the tumor and Patches’ skull, and then worked with an engineer to create a 3D printed model on which Oblak could practice the surgery. She then worked with ADEISS, a 3D printing medical tech company in the U.K. to adapt their software to suit canine needs and develop the prothesis which would replace the parts of Patches’ skull that needed to be removed.

Most excitingly, Oblak’s new technique should greatly speed up the process in these kinds of surgeries. Because the team modeled Patches’ skull and tumor and prepared for the surgery ahead of time, they were able to produce a skull-cap that fit like a “puzzle piece,” and drastically reduce the amount of time that the patient needs to be put under.

Because of these new techniques, Patches was only put under for about five hours, and was alert and responsive within a half hour of waking up.

The potential to develop more personalized medicine and eliminate the the need for transplant donors has long been one of the most promising use-cases for 3D printing technology. And while it takes a very long time to go from proof-of-concept to actually being used in surgeries, researchers are getting closer to being able to 3D print whole body parts. Back in May, for example, some researchers in the U.K. 3D printed the first human cornea.

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