Australian technology has broken new medical ground in the United States with the implanting of a 3D-printed ribcage and sternum into a 20-year-old cancer patient.
 
In a first for the US, the custom implant — produced with 3D-printed titanium combined with a porous polyethylene material to provide a “bone-like” architecture to allow tissue integration  — replaced a previous prosthetic in student Penelope Heller.
 
Made by Melbourne-based Anatomics in partnership with the CSIRO, the 3D-printed solution was implanted by a surgical team at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical Centre.
 
The surgery, led by Dr Jeffrey L. Port, entailed a complex sternum and ribcage reconstruction and revision, and followed Heller’s chondrosarcoma resection — removal of a chemotherapy and radiotherapy resistant malignant bone tumor — in 2015.
 
At the time of the original, successful resection surgery, Heller received an improvised implant using off-the-shelf Gore-Tex and bone cement, which left her with problems with breathing, restricted movement and pain.
 
Heller and her family researched solutions and learned about a world first surgery conducted in Spain in 2014 using an implant developed by Anatomics. They contacted the company, which worked with them, Weill Cornell and the US Food and Drug Administration to gain approval for the use of the implant under the FDA’s Expanded Access (Compassionate Use) program.
 
Australian neurosurgeon and Executive Chairman of Anatomics Paul D’Urso said Heller was one of thousands of patients the company has helped in the 25 years since developing its biomodelling technology, but hers was a unique story.
 
“The success of Anatomics in helping some of the leading surgeons in the US to solve this complex problem has been replicated around the world with the many world firsts, including sternums, orthopaedic implants and other surgical devices,” D’Urso said.
 
“What makes [this case] truly remarkable is how Penelope and her family undertook a global search to find the best way of helping her to lead a life that a normal 20-year-old would have, and they found us here in Melbourne.”
 
The Weill Cornell surgical team used high-resolution CT scans of Penelope’s chest – sent via a secure AnatomicsRx software platform – to design the implant in cooperation with her lead surgeon, who reviewed the design online with the Anatomics engineers in Melbourne.
 
To print the implant, Anatomics sent the build code to Lab 22, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s 3D-printing laboratory. The titanium component was printed on an Arcam printer that uses a powerful electron beam to melt metal powder into 3D objects.
 
Heller said as a result of her successful surgery she hopes to study to become a doctor and get back to yoga, rock climbing and horse riding.
 
“With a long, active life ahead of me, I wanted to participate in activities that I love fully and without pain. Electing to have this procedure was a big decision and I’m coming forward to empower other people in the same position,” she said.