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Australia pioneering 3D printing for bone implants

New 3D printer offering hope to patients needing b
Photo: Australia pioneering 3D printing for bone implants
Ground-breaking Australian research on 3D printing technology is offering new hope to cancer patients who require a bone replacement.

The bone implants will be initially created using a national-first 3D printer in the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse’s new Sarcoma and Surgical Research Centre.

Researchers are exploring how the printer can be used to create honeycomb scaffolds to grow implants from patients’ own tissue and bone, outside the body.

“This new printer is the first of its kind in a hospital, and I think there are only five such machines in the world”, Dr Natalka Suchowerska, the Lifehouse's director of physics research and education, told HealthTimes.

For some patients who have had pieces of their bone removed due to cancer, it’s not unusual to have to wait many months for parts of the implant to be prepared overseas – making their cancer journey all the more challenging. 
Dr Suchowerska and her team hope the new 3D printing technology will allow implants to be created and received more quickly, with the process occurring entirely in Australia.

“For cancer patients, the bone replacement operations always have to have been done yesterday. And we then want to get on with chemotherapy and the radiation therapy as quickly as possible, if they would benefit from it; and many do.”

“So, we need a quick solution, but an effective solution, and that’s what we’re looking at with this research.”

Besides the protracted production time, traditional titanium implants present other problems for patients with cancer.

“If you have a titanium implant, it scatters the radiation beam in a way that the dose distribution is really hard to determine”, Dr Suchowerska said.

“And it's hard to see what is around the titanium, so you end up with a big white shadow and you can't see what's happening next to the implant.”

“So, that causes two problems. The first is that it's difficult to plan the cancer treatment for the radiation, but secondly, when you want to look at what's happening right next to the implant, you can't see, so you can't pick up early if there is any recurrence of the cancer.”

Another problem lies in the heaviness of titanium – and this presents issues for non-cancer patients who have had bone replacements too.

“For example, hip replacements typically need to be replaced every 10 years. And this is because titanium is a lot harder than bone – and what you find is that the bone around the titanium starts to crumble away, so the fit is not good.”

Dr Suchowerska and her team are focusing their research on printing with a material called PEEK, a polyether ether ketone that is lighter than titanium, but durable and strong.

She explained that the 3D technology prints selective laser sintering.

“By that we mean it uses powder, PEEK powder, which the laser sinters in to create the object. And this gives you a very solid structure, and we could do this for many patients, more at an industrial level.”

Another key component at the new Lifehouse facility is a desktop scanning electron microscope.

“This will give us a good edge and enable to see what we're printing and analyse really carefully the surface of what is being put into the patient. We’ll know, for example, if there’s any other atom on that surface that may aggravate that patient.”

Dr Suchowerska said Australian researchers are well on their way to a completely different approach to bone replacements for patients who have lost bone, offering them a less invasive option with a faster recovery time.

“Besides the titanium option, patients have also been able to have a bit of bone taken from another part of their body and transplant it. But that then means we have to introduce a new wound site, for example, in their leg, as well as their jaw.”

“They then have to learn how to walk again with the changing their bone structure, so it's actually quite invasive.”

“To be able to create something where we can grow their bone in this honeycomb of PEEK is a really nice alternative. And that's what we're working on.”

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.