Accessibility, Life Care Plan, Medical Consultation, Technology

Prosthetics and 3D Printing

 April 4, 2018

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

The origins of 3D printing can be traced back to 1986. It was invented by an American engineer named Chuck Hull. The process, in which material is joined together under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, has grown into a billion dollar industry that has revolutionized prototyping and manufacturing. It has also had quite an impact on anaplastology, a medical profession dedicated to creating realistic prosthetics for patients who have missing or deformed features due to surgery, injury or congenital defects.

Understanding Anaplastology

A specialist will likely meet directly with a patient based on a particular body part, such as facial features, limbs or breasts. Together, the doctor and patient will discuss the abnormality. Pictures and measurements will be taken. Finally, a plan is formed.

When forming a new breast, eye, ear, or finger, symmetry is of the utmost importance. Before 3D printing, a wax mold would be taken of a corresponding body part to ensure the prosthetic will be made to accurate dimensions.  An anaplastologist would then study the mold and any pictures taken, before beginning work on the prosthetic. Most prosthetics would be made from silicone because of the many similarities it shares with human flesh. Joints or bones would require harder or softer plastics. Getting down to the finer details, such as wrinkles, depressions, nail beds, or nipples, such features were hand-sculpted with precision instruments. Once involved with matching skin colors or applying artificial hair, there is no question that these professional have entered the realm of art.

The Impact of 3-D Printing

Hand-sculpted, painted and pigmented prosthetics are essentially now works of art. They take several weeks to create and can cost as much as $15,000. 3-D printing is less expensive and takes less time. It is now the preferred alternative when it comes to facial prosthetics. The new 3-D printed prosthesis can be customized for the need of the patient.

In 2014, University of Miami researchers designed a 3D printing process that revolutionized facial prosthetics. The undamaged side of the face is scanned with a mobile scanner, allowing specialized software to create a mirror image. The parts of the face with defects are also scanned. Merged with the previous scans, a 3-D image of a complete face is created. An injection-molded rubber prosthesis based on that image emerges from a 3-D printer, complete with the pigments of the patient’s skin tone.

The Future

Far be it from us to think we could completely catch you up with this revolution. In fact, keeping up with technology’s efforts to assist the disabled is just a form of thrill-seeking around here. Let’s have a look at what’s to come in the world of prosthetics and 3-D printing:

  • A Brazilian man named Carlito Conceicao had lost his right eye socket and part of his nose to an aggressive form of cancer called upper maxillary carcinoma. With the help of Dr. Rodrigo Salazar, a free app called Autodesk 123D Catch was used to print him replacement facial components .That’s right, in 2016, Carlito Conceicao became the first person to receive a prosthesis that had been 3-D printed from a smart phone.
  • That same year, Shirley Anderson received a facial prosthesis from researchers at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. Anderson developed complications from tongue cancer in 1998, which cost him his jaw and Adam’s apple. The 3-D printing was used to replace about 75 to 80 percent of what was otherwise a traditional prosthetic fabrication.

There seems to be no limit as far as what 3-D printing can prototype and manufacture for the prosthetics industry. We have already seen prosthetic eyes created by U.S. Air Force doctors. There are now 3-D printed prosthetic limbs for landmine victims. The future looks bright.

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