3D printing is proving to be an invaluable tool for medicine, filling gaps where previous handcrafted artificial limbs and prosthetics would have failed.

One example comes from Australia, where the government-supported printing center Lab 22 3D printed the first sternum and rib cage in the world. The implant was solicited by a Spanish clinic for one of its patients who suffered from chest wall sarcoma.

At the beginning of the year, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) finished the project for a metal 3D printing high-end technology facility in Victoria near Melbourne.

Lab 22 cost $6 million and is designed with the purpose of speeding up the adoption of 3D printing throughout Australia.

Australian companies can gain expertise and know-how from manufacturing experts. It also offers ideas and methods for product development, which will help the local industry.

Anatomics, a Melbourne-based medical company, came straight to the 3D printing center when they were contacted by Spanish doctors. The patient had a very peculiar chest wall sarcoma, meaning that the tumor developed surrounding a big segment of the rib cage. This made surgery nearly impossible because it meant replacing a large portion of the chest's bone structure. Thanks to 3D printing, a fully customized sternum and rib cage were designed and produced.

Chest implants are nothing new to modern medicine, but the standard ones have a rather low success rate. Both the plates and the other pieces tend to move over time, and this leads to unwanted complications. To avoid this, surgeons from the Salamanca University Hospital asked the Australian company to help. CT scans at high resolution managed to create a precise 3D reconstruction of the chest bones and of the tumor, so that the doctors could plan their intervention in great detail.

The Australian Arcam 3D printer, worth US$920,000, was used to print out a 3D model of the rib cage by layering metal particles with an electron beam. The video below shows how the machine operates.

Once it reached Spain, the implant was used to replace the missing bone structure. Surgeons were impressed by the precise way the titanium alloy fit the patient, every measured detail falling in its right place.

Ian Macfarlane, Australia's Industry and Science Minister, proudly reported that the 3D printed implant was a success.

The surgery happened 12 days ago, and the recipient patient has already been sent home and is in good health.

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