A soccer injury revealed a malignant tumor in a 12-year-old boy from China, prompting extensive surgery to prevent the cancer from spreading. To replace the boy's second vertebra, doctors turned to a 3D-printed implant.

With help from doctors from the Peking University Third Hospital, the Chinese boy became the first person in the world to receive a vertebral implant that was made using a 3D printer. Pre-fabricated implants could've been used, but the 3D-printed implant provided the doctors with a replacement vertebra that was as close to the original as possible.

This is thanks to a 3D printer's capability to basically copy any kind of design. The doctors created a 3D model that replicates the vertebra to be removed in the boy using titanium powder. The powder is a traditional material utilized in the production of implants, which allowed them to make a vertebral implant that not only perfectly mimics the boy's bone structure, but still also features the durability that pre-fabricated options offer.

The 3D-printed vertebra was also easier to implant because it did not require the use of cement or screws. Aside from perfectly copying the vertebra to be removed, the implant was also designed to have small holes or pores that would naturally allow the boy's bones to grow into it, providing a more permanent bond between the implant and the rest of his spine.

After the five-hour surgery to replace the boy's second vertebra, he was fitted with gear to immobilize his neck and head for three months during his recovery. The real result of the surgery is yet to be seen, but the boy was already in good spirits five days after the procedure.

Guided by surgical needs and clinical experience, Peking University's Orthopedics Department began considering the use of 3D-printed implants in 2009. In 2010, the group headed by Liu Zhongjun started on animal trials with sheep as test subjects. When 3D-printed implants proved to be safe, human clinical trials took place in 2012.

Aside from vertebral implants, 3D printing technology has also been used by doctors at PUTH to recreate discs between vertebra. In the Netherlands, a replacement skull was also made for a woman while facial implants were produced for a man in Cardiff, both also with the help of a 3D printer.

In the U.S. alone, the demand for implantable medical devices is projected to grow to a $52-billion industry by 2015, with orthopedic implants as one of the fastest growing areas of the industry.

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