World-first implantation of 3D-printed vertebrae takes place in Australia

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Ralph Mobbs, a neurosurgeon from the Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, Australia, has replaced two cancerous vertebrae with 3D-printed implants, according to a report from the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC). The world-first surgery took approximately 15 hours, and involved the separation and re-attachment of the patient’s skull from his spinal tissue.

The news was reported on ABC’s 7.30 programme by Connor Duffy (Credit: ABC 7.30)

The patient presented with chordoma. His top two vertebrae were constricted by a tumour, which would cause a gradual loss of motor function, and ultimately, death. Mobbs told ABC, “He would gradually lose function of his arms and legs, gradually lose function of his capacity to breathe, eat. Let’s not take it too far further than that. It’s not a pleasant death at all.”

Entering through the mouth, the surgeons resected the tumour and removed the two compromised vertebrae, before implanting the new 3D-printed vertebrae.  Two months following the surgery, the surgeons were able to deliver news to the patient of the procedure’s success. ABC reported “unexpectedly good” neck movements at present.

The patient’s vertebrae pre- and post-procedure (Credit: Ralph Mobbs)

According to ABC, the patient is suffering from complications including problems with speaking and eating, which are expected to gradually resolve. These complications are a result of “prolonged exposure” through the mouth, given the surgery’s long length, according to Mobbs.

Careful preoperative planning made the operation possible (Credit: Ralph Mobbs)

The high-risk surgery was made possible by extensive preoperative planning. “Placing the implant at the end of the operation, that is the easy part,” Mobs told ABC. “The hard part is the one or two months of work beforehand. The hard part is sitting down at the computer console and working out how you are going to do the operation, what angles that you are going to take, how you are going to achieve the resection of the tumour, and then planning the implant around that.”

Ralph Mobbs

Using personalised, 3D-printed implants allowed Mobbs and team to fill the large veterbrae gap perfectly. “We have pre-planned the prosthesis to fit perfectly in place, like a glove, and that will form the stability for where the neck and the head meet,” Mobbs said.

“3D printing of body parts is the next phase of individualised health care. To restore bones, joints, organs with this type of technology really is super exciting,” Mobbs surmised. “You know, Australia is supposed to be the smart country. Well, here is our opportunity to really take it out there and to keep pushing the boundaries on the whole 3D-printed body part business.”