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3D Printing & Neurosurgery – Is The Future Here?

Medically reviewed by Abhay Sanan, MD, Ramin AmirNovin, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 15, 2022

Having a body part made to order with the touch of a button seems more fiction than science. Yet when it comes to 3D printing and neurosurgery, the future may already be here. Doctors are incorporating the technology in a variety of ways. As a patient, you will want to know what to expect along with the risks. It might help to start with a bit of history.


Back to the Future with 3D Printing


The origins of 3D printing go all the way back to 1980 and a Japanese patent lawyer who filed for Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology –– but had his application denied for failing to meet certain legal requirements. Four years later, a collection of French engineers failed to interest buyers in their take on 3D printing. It wasn’t until 1986 that Stereolithography (SLA), as it was called, was patented by an American named Chuck Hall. His invention of a device that could create a physical object from a  computer-generated file was groundbreaking. His company, DTM Inc. was acquired by 3D Systems Corporation, which today is the largest seller of the tech.


From its early days, the fundamentals of 3D printing remain unchanged. Information derived from a computer-aided design produces a three-dimensional object. A rapid prototyping machine creates 3D models by using powder-based materials. These materials are then fused layer-by-layer using a liquid adhesive hardened by an ultraviolet laser. Any excessive liquid adhesive is later removed in a chemical bath. 3D printing isn’t all that different from everyday printing involving paper and ink. Just like an inkjet printer, powder material is deposited either via a roller or piston.


Neurosurgery and 3D Printing


Surgical 3D printing materials vary. Plastics, resins, stainless steel ceramics, and plastics are just a few of the materials used. If it is making a prosthetic or implant, then it must be both durable and biocompatible. Today 3D printing is used in medical schools where it substitutes for real human tissue.  It has even been used to create organs, vasculature, and neural networks using living tissue to reduce the chance of rejection. It can produce numerous medical products made for an individual patient, like hip and knee joints, dermal skin grafts, and vertebral cages.


Few specialties are as delicate as neurosurgery. In many cases, success or failure is a matter of millimeters. With neurosurgery, an accurate 3-D model of the brain can be produced prior to surgery. This allows the surgeon an opportunity to chart a path for the operation and determine any issues. 3D printing can also create customizable cranial implants.


Even medical professionals tend to see neurosurgeons as focused on the brain. However, a neurosurgeon is almost as likely to perform spinal surgery as an orthopedic surgeon. Thus, neurosurgeons can also benefit from onsite 3D printers that can create spinal implants made just for one individual’s spine.  Although these advances can be life changing, as with most new technologies cost is a major factor. Rapid prototyping machines can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is also the cost of the plastic and resin-based materials to consider. Plus, depending on the machine and the final product required, it can take hours. For a patient this can mean increased costs, although the benefits of a custom-designed product can’t be overstated. This may be why the U.S market for medical 3D printing is well over one billion dollars. By 2027, it could be five times that. For many patients and neurosurgeons, the future of 3-D printing in medicine is here today.


Written by John Bankston

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