Slowly but surely, 3D printing is working its way through the human anatomy, replacing infected jaws, cancerous vertebrae and deformed hips in a procession of world-first medical treatments. The latest body part to be ticked off the list is the heel, an achievement that has put a 71-year-old cancer patient who was facing an amputation below the knee back on his feet.
It was back in June that Len Chandler, of Rutherglen, Australia, was diagnosed with cancer of the calcaneus (the heel bone). Doctors at St Vincent's Hospital initially advised Chandler that surgery was the only course of action, and could result in amputation.
But the surgeons had also been in contact with experts from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), who had made waves in 3D printing a year earlier with a bespoke titanium horseshoe.
They then brought in the expertise of Anatomics, an Australian company that manufactures custom medical devices. Using schematics of the heel bone provided by Anatomics, the team developed an implant and provided it to the surgeons at St Vincent's for the procedure. Important elements were holes where sutures would be inserted, smooth surfaces for contact with bones and rougher surfaces to enable adhesion of the tissue.
The titanium heel bone was then implanted into Chandler's foot in July. When returning for a checkup last week, some three months after the surgery, he was said to be recovering well and can place some weight on the heel again.