Using 3D printing and sequential folding technology, researchers are proposing to revolutionize the way medical implants are produced and implanted.
The technique called, “shape-shifting” is being pioneered by Professor Amir Zadpoor and his research team at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Rather than 3D print artificial bone for replacing a diseased bone, Zadpoor wants to 2D print materials that when immersed in a special bath, will sequentially fold into a 3D structure that perfectly fits the missing bone space. Once placed the structure will then attract the body’s bone stem cells that will bind to the structure and regrow the missing bone.
According to Sander Dijkstra, an orthopedic surgeon working with Zadpoor to increase porosity in 3D printed medical implant materials, producing implant materials with pores offer the ability to a produce antibacterial surface coating that is many times more effective. The idea is to provide better integration with the body and a stronger implant.
Dijkstra, currently uses partially porous 3D printed implants, but the process uses a CT-scan of the affected bone and the part that needs replacing. Using special software, they design a prosthesis to perfectly fit onto the remaining bone.
The instructions are then transmitted to a company in Germany that 3D prints the needed bone piece, which is then sent to Dijkstra for implantation. The whole procedure from design to surgery takes about seven weeks, and one in seven of these implants needs to be replaced.
“Implants may loosen and wear out,” Dijkstra said in a press release. “Young patients in particular run the risk of having a prosthetic replaced later in life.”
As Zadpoor envisions future implant procedures, after the surgeon removes a tumor-invaded section of the patient’s bone, a scanner would spin over and around the patient on the operating table. As it does so, equipment in the operating room begins to print an intricately designed flat sheet of material with gaps and strips.
After a few minutes, the material drops into a liquid bath and it begins to swell and fold in a precise sequence. After a few minutes the fully formed piece is clicked into the space removed by the surgeon. A few months later, all the pores and cavities of the structure are filled with bone cells that grow into bone that is indistinguishable from natural bone and will last a lifetime.
The advantage is that the 2D net can be printed in much less time and the folded 3D structure stimulates bone regrowth that will never need to be replaced, thus avoiding the need for repeat implant procedures later in life.
Zadpoor acknowledges that his vision is a long way off, but believes it is a logical next step in what is happening in the clinic today. Custom 3D-printed prosthetics are already rescuing patients own bone. The shape-shifting technology promises to make implants cheaper, faster to produce, and last for the patient’s lifetime.
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