3D Printing Is Not Just for Trinkets – Now It Saves Lives

3d printing saving lives

3D printing has been in the news a lot over the last few years. People have used it to print intricate architecture and design customized parts, and medicine has used it to develop prosthetics and other devices. However, 3D printing is now officially saving lives, and this story out of China shows how.

The Background Story

Jia Jia, an eight-month-old infant, was born with a condition called craniosynostosis. It’s a rare condition that causes a baby’s skull bones, which are generally still separated and unfused at birth to allow for safe passage through the birth canal, to fuse too soon and cause irregular head shape. In severe cases, it can affect the brain’s growth and cause a number of neurological problems that can affect anything from basic motor function to cognition. Jia Jia’s condition was so severe that no hospital in his local area would treat him, so his parents took him to Shanghai Children’s Medical Center in a last ditch effort to get him the help he needed.

What Was Wrong with Jia Jia?

After many scans and tests, doctors confirmed that Jia Jia’s skull had a bilateral coronal suture closure that caused him to have a very flat forehead, a narrow interior fontanelle, and a head that was much, much taller than it should have been. What’s more, the skull abnormalities had also caused some facial deformities. The doctors there were concerned that Jia Jia’s frontal lobe would not develop properly, and that this would significantly inhibit his IQ and the development of his emotions. As such, they set out to find a treatment and they knew they needed to operate very, very quickly.

Enter 3D Printing Technology

There are two steps in treating craniosynostosis. The first requires breaking the skull down into pieces and disassembling it in order to release the brain, and the second involves piecing the skull back together again as close to the correct shape and dimension as possible. As you might imagine, it’s a very complex process and one that doctors wanted to plan very meticulously before beginning. They used a 3D printing machine to create an exact model of Jia Jia’s skull, which gave them the opportunity to plan exactly how they would put his skull back together in such a way to allow for healthy brain development.

Jia Jia Today

After the doctors had an opportunity to formulate a plan, they operated on Jia Jia on May 21st, 2016. Despite the complexity of the operation, the 3D printed model allowed them to complete the surgery in right at four hours. They even managed to account for hereditary features, allowing Jia Jia to resemble his family. The procedure was very successful; Jia Jia’s head is now the correct size and shape for his body, and his brain will grow normally throughout his life.

As you can see, 3D printing is about much more than providing simple solutions for industries across the globe. Every single day, doctors around the world are finding new and more innovative ways to use 3D printing to help them save lives, just like little Jia Jia at Shanghai Children’s Hospital in China.