3D-printed vertebra used in spine surgery

A medical staff member displays a spine model implanted with a 3D-printed artificial axis at Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing, August 14, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Surgeons in Beijing, China, have successfully implanted an artificial, 3D-printed vertebra replacement in a young boy with bone cancer. They say it is the first time such a procedure has ever been done.

During a five-hour operation, the doctors first removed the tumor located in the second vertebra of 12-year-old Minghao's neck and replaced it with the 3D-printed implant between the first and third vertebrae, CCTV.com reported earlier this month.

"This is the first use of a 3D-printed vertebra as an implant for orthopedic spine surgery in the world," said Dr. Liu Zhongjun, the director of orthopedics at No. 3 Hospital, Peking University, who performed the surgery.

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Side-by-side pictures of a spine model, a spine model implanted with a traditionally used titanium tube, and a spine model implanted with a 3D-printed artificial axis (L-R), are displayed at Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing, August 14, 2014.
Jason Lee / Reuters

The boy was playing football when he headed the ball and injured his neck, and it was later confirmed that he had a tumor, Minghao's mother said.

Prior to the surgery, the patient had been lying in the orthopedics ward for more than two months, and he could occasionally stand up, but only for a few minutes.

Normally, a diseased axis would be replaced by a standardized, hollow titanium tube, Liu told Reuters.

"Using existing technology, the patient's head needs to be framed with pins after surgery," as his head cannot touch the bed when he is resting for at least three months, he explained. "But with 3D printing technology, we can simulate the shape of the vertebra, which is much stronger and more convenient than traditional methods."

Five days after the surgery, Minghao still could not speak and had to use a writing board to communicate. However, doctors said at the time that he was in a good physical condition and they expected him to make a strong recovery.

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