The cyborgs are here, and they are definitely on our side.
What would you do if you had to choose between having cancer or having a chest?
Suppose you're 54 years old and you suddenly find out that a cancerous bone tumor known as a chest wall sarcoma has devoured your sternum and part of your ribcage.
For all of the remarkable advancements that have been made in the fight against cancer, there's not much that can be done in a case like this. By removing the infected tissue, you're pretty much left without any upper torso skeletal support.
That may have worked for one of my favorite obscure X-Men characters, but it presents some issues in the real world.
There's one other option. And even though it sounds like something out of science fiction, it actually works.
A man in Salamanca, Spain, has received the world's first 3D-printed titanium chest implant. Which is kind of like this:
Except actually more like this:
With help from Anatomics, a Melbourne-based company that specializes in innovative medical devices, surgeons used a series of high-resolution CT scans of the patient's chest in an attempt to recreate his existing bone structure.
This also allowed better planning for the actual surgery; the doctors knew ahead of time exactly where the pieces would go and exactly how they'd fit, which, er, meant a lot less time spent diggin' around in the poor guy's open chest cavity (which is always good news).
The implant was then 3D-printed by an Australian company called CSIRO using a high-powered electron beam to melt down the powdered titanium into a more malleable material (so don't get too excited about the prospect of 3D-printing an army of metal skeletons on your little consumer-grade MakerBot — not yet, anyway).
Basically it goes from this:
Chest implants and 3D-printed parts separately are nothing new. But bringing them together? That's pretty cool.
In the past, reconstructive surgery for the chest wall has relied on flat metal plates and screws. It's an imperfect process that's not really known for its longevity (though it's certainly better than nothing).
But by using 3D modeling to recreate the complicated geometries of the patient's unique ribcage and sternum, this particular process turned out to be much safer and more reliable. As José Aranda, a doctor on the surgical team, explained in a press release, "Thanks to 3D printing technology and a unique resection template, we were able to create a body part that was fully customised and fitted like a glove."
And so far things are looking good — the patient was discharged 12 days after the surgery and is well on his way to recovery, shiny metal ribs and all (or at least, I'm assuming it's still shiny — you can't really see it, ya know?).
Maybe we can't stop cancer from ever happening. But it's still nice to know the future's on our side.
When we think of 3D-printed titanium bones, we're probably thinking more about some post-apocalyptic movie like "The Terminator" than we are about the actual real-world applications of this incredible technology.
Don't get me wrong; there are still plenty of things that we need to concern ourselves with as we move into the future. But while we're busy lamenting the lack of jetpacks and flying cars, there are people using new technology to build houses and hands and heads and even hearts (not technically functioning, but we're almost there).
So yeah, cancer's still a thing. But we've got 3D-printed, titanium-chested cyborgs on our side, so I say bring it on.
Here's a cool little video on the 3D-printed-sternum process, courtesy of CSIRO: