Additive manufacturing or 3D printing has come as a wonder to us. Despite being an idea as old as the 1980s, it took us years to get to a point where we can manufacture anything, from boxes and shoes to organs, tires, ovaries, houses, and what not. The technology can change our world to a time where nearly everything will be made by throwing some ink in a 3D printer. The most profound of its applications are in the medical world where it has helped many who had already lost their hopes.
An Australian man was about to lose his leg to a bacterial infection when he was saved by 3D printing. Reuben Lichter of Mudgeeraba began to feel pain in his leg above the knee at the beginning of this year. The problem was diagnosed by the doctors as osteomyelitis, and it consumed his bone that began to disintegrate within months. His only option other than getting a 3D printed bone was to lose the leg once and for all. Lichter became the subject of world’s first ever 3D printed tibia transplant.
The patient still has 18 months of recovery time before he can walk again. He talked to The Sydney Morning Herald saying,
“Doctors came to me and said there are two options; You can be amputated above the knee, or you can try this experimental stuff that may, or may not work, and I said: ‘Bam, do it’.”
The team that performed Lichter’s surgery was lead by surgeon Micheal Wagels. They first drained all the pus from the infection and then tried on many of the tibial scaffold options. Biomedical engineers at the Queensland University of Technology designed a structure to promote the growth of bone around it and then dissolve itself over time. It was needed that the body grows itself around the scaffold. Therefore, tissue and blood vessels from both of his legs were used in the scaffold. The entire procedure was conducted at the Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital in five different operations.
It is quite a scary thing to give your body away for an experiment that may not even work, but Lichter thought differently.
“It was not frightening at all. If there was a chance for me to save my leg and do the things I want to do with my son, then I was going to take it,” he said. “I wasn’t going to lose my leg without having a fight.”
Lichter’s fiance gave birth to their son only two days before he went into the surgery and now he jokes that his son will begin to walk before his father does. However, it will open up many paths in the application of additive manufacturing to the medical world and prosthetics.
The future may hold the options of getting 3D printed artificial organs, but research has not brought any applicable fruit yet. Let’s wait and see what the future holds for the world of prosthetics and Biomedicine.