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First Ever 3D-Printed Vertebra Saves Boy with Cancer

First Ever 3D-Printed Vertebra Saves Boy with Cancer

Minghao, a 12-year-old boy from China, was playing football with his friends when he went to head the ball and injured his neck.

But when Minghao went to the doctors, they found that it wasn’t a simple sprain they were dealing with, but a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma that has manifested as a tumour in the boy’s second vertebra.

Because of the location of his tumour, Minghao was only able to stand for a couple of minutes, and so ended up spending more than two months lying in a bed on the orthopaedics ward of Beijing’s Peking University Third Hospital.

Existing treatment for Minghao’s condition would involve replacing the affected bone with a titanium tube. Dr Liu Zhongjun, Director of Orthopaedics at the hospital, explained that after surgery, the patient’s head would then need to be framed with pins for at least three months, to make sure their head doesn’t touch the bed when the patient is resting.

Minghao's 3D-printed vertebra

But Minghao’s doctors decided to opt for an alternative method, turning to their extensive research and technology regarding 3D printing. “With 3D-printing technology, we can simulate the shape of the vertebra, which is much stronger and more convenient than traditional methods,” Dr Zhongjun said.

To create Minghao’s new vertebra, the team took CT scans of the boy’s spine, then converted this data to the 3D printer so that it would produce exactly the same structure as the bone needing to be replaced. This means that the 3D-printed bone, made from titanium powder, was a perfect replica of his piece of spine, with tiny pores throughout so that as his bones grow, they will bond with the 3D-printed replacement.

Minghao can now walk, with help

Dr Zhongjun explained that not only does the better-fitting 3D-printed vertebra allow for safer surgery, it also dramatically enhances the degree of stability. This means that – unlike the current titanium tube bone replacement method – the patient will be able to move soon after surgery and not be confined to their bed for further months.

Minghao’s five-hour operation was a success, and while he still couldn’t speak five days later, he was able to communicate via a writing board. His doctors say that the boy is in good physical shape and is now on the road to recovery, able to walk while wearing protective support gear for his head.

The only thing left for Minghao to have to go through now is chemotherapy to get rid of any possible remaining cancer cells, but it looks like he can go back to being a regular boy in no time, playing football with his friends.


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