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China pioneered research in 3D printed bones


08-18-2014 04:21 BJT

So how does one 3D print implanted vertebra? And what are the challenges along the way?

This is the 3D printing machine that printed the vertebra implanted in Minghao’s body.

Doctors first transmitted Minghao’s CT data to the machine’s technicians, who later used the data to build a 3D model.

"We needed to locate which part of his bone had the tumour. We singled out that part and on the basis of that, we built the model," Wang Caimei, research director with Vertebra 3d Printing Company, said.

The model was then put into the computer. Then titanium alloy is used as "ink" in the printing machine, under 60,000 electron volts, to produce the man-made bone.

Though the machine and the titanium are imported, the design ideas were developed by Chinese companies.

"For years we’ve been copying foreign products. Our clients and doctors all think Chinese products are of poor quality, and that we lag behind. Foreign companies have years of accumulative technology, and they’ve brought up the price, so it’s very hard for us to surpass them. But now, it’s a different technology, a new field; we must seize this opportunity," Li Zhijiang, general manager with Vertebra 3d Printing Company, said.

But government approval is proving a big hindrance.

The Peking University Third Hospital started research into the area in 2009, and 3D printed vertebra were placed under clinical observation in 2012. Over 100 clinical cases have been documented, with results published in the world’s leading journals.

The work began early, but has now lagged behind due to lack of government approval. Their counterparts in the US and South Korea started later, but have already hit the market.

"They were two to three years behind us, but were the first to come into market. But we are still awaiting approval. If this continues, our innovation will forever lag behind. We must call on society to change the situation and make our country a real innovative country. We cannot always be followers, we need to be world leaders,"  Liu Zhongjun, director of orthopedics with No. 3 Hospital, Peking University, said.

Liu says 70 percent of the money on orthopaedic surgery is now spent on importing fabricated bones. With products made domestically, costs to patients would be dramatically lowered.

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