Life-changing surgery thanks to 3D printing

Photo credit: Sam Ruttyn, Daily Telegraph

A life-changing surgery using 3D printing at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (CHW) has given sisters, Maddy and Briella, hope for the future.

Eleven-year-old Maddy and eight-year-old Briella, were both born with a rare form of dwarfism called diastrophic dysplasia. Over time, their condition caused their spines to unnaturally curve sideways and bend forwards and resulted in a debilitating spinal deformity known as kyphocscoliosis.

If left untreated, the girls were at risk of having their lungs crushed. Surgery was their only option.

“Without surgery, it would have been life-limiting because it is right where their lungs are, so it would have put pressure on their lungs and could lead to respiratory failure,” their mother, Nicole said.

In 2018, the sisters both underwent a life-changing procedure to straighten their twisted spines, but this wasn’t without risk.

Maddy and Briella both needed to be placed in halo traction - a lightweight metal ring, or ‘halo,’ which is attached to each of the children’s skulls with pins. Precision was paramount to ensure the pins were placed in exactly the right spot.

For this, surgeons turned to 3D printing.

Replica models of their skulls were 3D printed by the Kids Research EPIC Lab. These were then cut in half so surgeons could see where the thickest parts of the skull were in each child for accurate insertion of the pins.

“As far as we know using a 3D printed skull to work out the best place to insert the pins into the skull has not been done before,” Dr Randolph Gray, Orthopaedic Surgeon at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, said.

“The girls had to be in traction for six months after surgery, so it was critical to work out where those pins should go in the skull.”

By using this innovative technology, surgeons were able to ensure Maddy and Briella has the best and safest outcome possible.

“There are some things on a screen that are really tricky to visualise in 3D. Using 3D printing can be so useful in cases like this for the surgeon to be able to understand the structures they will be dealing with in theatre,” Dr Tegan Cheng, Biomedical Engineer, Scientist and Group Leader of the EPIC Lab in Kids Research added.

“This means the surgeons know what to expect and can plan the best possible approach before they even put the patient under.”

The surgery was a success, so much so that six months later, when the time came for their spinal fusion, the same technique was used, with 3D models of their vertebraes were printed to allow greater accuracy of screw placement.

“If Maddy and Briella had not had access to this treatment, their spines would have deteriorated, limiting the quality and even the length of their lives. To access these safe, innovative interventions has really given them a future,” Nicole said.

Today, the girls are back to their fun, happy lives.

“What we have gained is more hope for the future. Now their spines won’t collapse,” Nicole said.

Since then, the EPIC Lab has continued to use 3D technologies to innovate and develop medical devices for children's musculoskeletal conditions as well as using it as an educational tool for healthcare professionals. See how they are using 3D printing to create models of organs for medical students to study.

The EPIC Lab is proudly supported by Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation and Hyundai Help for Kids.