Doctors on Long Island performed an unprecedented surgery earlier this month: They replaced 75 percent of a man’s skull with a new 3-D printed thermoplastic material shaped specifically for his head, the first-ever 3-D printed skull implant in the United States.
Last March, ARTINFO delivered its first report on the myriad medical uses of 3-D printing, at the time a burgeoning but little-known technology that lent itself to prosthetics manufacturing, custom hearing aid design, and cosmetic and dental procedures. In the year since, the scope of its uses has grown dramatically, best evinced by the FDA’s February approval of the OsteoFab Patient Specific Cranial Device — the technical name of the implant developed by Connecticut-based Oxford Performance Materials that made this landmark procedure possible.
And OPM’s invention indicates not only a world of progress in 3-D printing’s development, but a potentially profound shift for the medical industry itself. Through 3-D printing, OPM can use a CAT scan of a person’s skull to manufacture an implant of exact dimensions, complete with spaces for the necessary screws. Effectively, the prefabrication cuts down both the time and cost spent in the OR; for every minute the skull is left open to allow doctors to trim and sculpt the implant to the proper dimensions, there’s an additional risk of infection and $65 (we reiterate: per minute) in anesthesiology fees. The material itself is revolutionary. PEKK, short for polyetherketoneketone, has uniquely ideal properties for such implants: physical similarities to bone; osteoconductivity, or the ability to host the growth of new bone cells; and non-interference with X-rays, unlike traditional metal implants that block them.
At the moment, OsteoFab is comparable in price to a traditional implant and takes several weeks to manufacture. With further development that’s likely to change. As OPM explores uses for PEKK in other places in the body, its possibilities are seemingly endless. In the final installment of our 7-part series on Innovators in Design, we’re putting the spotlight on OPM and other innovators like it — the creators of an intrepid mine detonator; a friendlier blood glucose monitor for diabetic children; emergency shipping container refuges; and starchitect-designed cancer support centers — who are redesigning the way we save lives.