A toddler is China is recovering from a harrowing condition that saw the young girl fighting to overcome a birth defect threatening to prevent her from leading a normal life. Surgeons managed to surgically assist the child by creating an artificial implant on a 3D printer. 

Hanhan, just three years old, underwent surgery on July 15 in an operation designed to restore a natural form to the young girl's skull. A birth defect known as congenital hydrocephalus left the young girl with a head three times normal size. This condition results when cerebrospinal fluid is prevented from properly draining out of the skull.

"It's not draining properly and ... leads to problems with the head, to swell. It will push out on bone," Gregory Lakin, chief of Pediatric Plastic Surgery at University Hospital's Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, said. Lakin did not participate in the surgery for Hanhan. 

The operation took place at a hospital in Changsha, within the Hunan province in China. In the United States, surgeons will often remove a piece of skull, drain fluid behind the bone and then replace the skull fragment.

Treatment of many patients with the condition can be challenging, as bones can be too soft for surgery or may contain other issues. In these cases, surgeons can now utilize 3D printers to create a replacement piece for skull fragments removed during surgery. Such artificial tools can be produced faster than natural donor body parts, at a lower cost, Lakin explained. 

Operations to drain fluid to treat congenital hydrocephalus cannot use 3D-printed implants until the patient is three years old or older. At this age, brains have greatly reduced their growth rate, so a rigid implant would be less likely to interfere with brain development. 

Hydrocephaly, the condition in which heads swell with fluid, is a rare condition and is also known as water on the brain. The condition affects between 20,000 and 200,000 Americans each year. 

"Congenital hydrocephaly is one of the most common central nervous system anomalies ... [T]his condition usually develops by the twentieth week of gestation, and defect can occur either alone, in association with spina bifida, or as part of a greater syndrome, such as Dandy-Walker Syndrome," the Texas Department of State Health Services reports

Children with hydrocephaly can suffer permanent brain damage if the condition is left untreated, due to significant pressure on the central organ of the nervous system. This can result in brains being stretched and drawn thinner. Such a state can result in problems with brain functions, including vision and speech. 

Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier | Flickr

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