Imagine an orthopedic surgeon printing customized ankle bones with a printer and implanting them into patients to help them walk again. Consider a surgeon printing reconstructive wedges for an ankle surgery in his office and using them to replace staples, screws and plates. While these scenarios may seem like science fiction, advances in 3-dimensional medical printing are turning them into reality.
The human ankle is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints and almost 100 muscles. Together, these components bear a significant portion of the body weight and are exposed to a lot of wear and tear. Ankle problems, such as arthritis, can be immensely painful and debilitating. The condition impacts about 1 – 4 percent of the population, as per an article published in the 2010 edition of the journal Current Opinion in Rheumatology. Conservative treatments include medications, physical therapy and devices. If these treatments fail, the patient may require surgical interventions such as arthroscopic debridement or arthrodesis.
Arthrodesis involves the fusion of ankle bones using screws and plates. The patients may also require bone grafts occasionally, which can get cumbersome and painful. Zimmer Biomet, a prominent name in reconstructive orthopedic industry, has created an innovative solution with 3-dimensional bioprinting technology. The company's Unite3D Bridge Fixation System consists of an “osteoconductive matrix” of biocompatible materials that mimics the ankle bones accurately and gets absorbed into the patient's body immediately. Orthopedic surgeons Dr. Greg Pomeroy of New England Foot and Ankle Specialists and Dr. John Early from Texas Orthopaedic Associates developed this system using Zimmer Biomet's proprietary OsseoTi material. The implants are available in nine different sizes to meet the needs of the patient. They also come with single-use surgical instruments.
In 2014, Dr. Marvin Brown of San Antonio Orthopedic Group in Texas used a 3-dimensional printer to obtain components and appropriate instrument guides for an ankle replacement surgery. The surgeon combined a modular prosthetic called Inbone and the bioprinted components effectively to help a patient recover from severe arthritic pain and injury. After the surgical intervention, the patient was able to walk with minimal pain. The new ankle is expected to last for 10 years.
The Potential of 3D Printing in Podiatry
Most experts agree that these examples only form the tip of the iceberg. Three-dimensional bioprinting has the potential to revolutionize the field of podiatry. Current technology allows scientists to print high quality human hyaline cartilage consistently, and studies have shown that these single-celled chondrocyte structures can help treat osteoarthritis routinely using joint replacement surgeries. Bioprinting can also help print autografts of the required size thereby, reducing the need for extracting tissues from donor sites.
Healthcare professionals and researchers are immensely hopeful of impact that 3-D bioprinting will have on ankle conditions. More research is being done to come up with effective solutions that are affordably priced as well. Soon, complications associated with ankle surgeries may be a thing of the past.