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Tech brings new name to prosthetics game


January 07, 2015
Science is so fascinating. Especially when it's used in positive ways.

I was reading about 3-D printing techniques recently when I came across an interesting article about Derby, a dog who'd been born with a limb deformity and was given a new lease on life after his owner, a savvy scientist, worked with a team of doctors and designers to create a unique set of 3-D printed limbs.

Now, Derby is just one of the guys … dogs … whatever. He can run, jump and generally do all the doggy things that doggies do each day.

But, Derby's situation got me thinking. I wonder how many companies have gotten in on the game of human prosthetics. It is, in essence, the same thing and not a great, long stretch to imagine that you could design and print a hand, or a leg, or I don't know … fingers?

Turns out, that's exactly what's happening.

There are more than two million amputees in the United States currently, and that number is growing as more than 150,000 amputations are performed each year, around 90 percent being lower limb amputations.

That leaves a lot of people in need of prosthetic limbs, and for individuals who have amputations early in life, it's often very cost ineffective to purchase traditional prostheses due to the advanced customization that must take place for each individual.

They're also very mechanical and robotic, which can often exacerbate a sense of loss that a person feels.

But with newer, more cost-effective printing techniques, that's changing.

Companies like Bespoke Innovations and 3D Systems, in conjunction with everyday people, are working on designs to create low-cost, highly-functional, visually-pleasing representations of the human form.

And it's working.

Parents of children with limb deformities that require prostheses are helping to put their children on a new path to independence while not having to worry about the financial burden of multiple prostheses (which can cost between $5,000 and $50,000 each) that their child will quickly outgrow.

Start-ups in the United States are creating new limbs for children and adults in war-torn areas of Africa and natural disaster-stricken places such as Haiti and the Philippines. Not only are they creating the limbs and fitting them, they're training people in-country how to do it, effectively giving participants a trade and a way to make a difference in a very real and lasting way.

It's not just about creating new limbs, either.

This type of printing has the potential to change how many medical procedures are performed. For example, cranial implants and organ structures.

Previously, cranial implants were difficult to place and were rigid, not allowing for expansion and retraction within the cranial cavity for patients who've had severe cranial trauma. Now, thanks to 3-D printing, cranial implants can be made more pliable and do a better job of protecting the patient and aiding the doctor.

A baby was born in Michigan early in 2012. His breathing was altered due to the collapsing of his airways, as the lungs weren't structurally strong enough to keep his airways open. Doctors used a 3-D printer in order to create a splint out of biocompatible materials — the same materials used in sutures — to hold the airway open.

It would be strong but flexible, it would expand as the baby grew into a toddler and, after three years or so, it would simply dissolve. Three years would be long enough for the baby's own cells to grow over it and create an adequate airway.

Saved from a life-threatening open cavity surgery, the baby boy was thriving as of May 2013.

Yes, I am a huge nerd. Science Friday on NPR is one of my favorite things and I just geeked out for a full three minutes on 3-D printing, but it's more than that.

Science and medicine have combined not only the human spirit of generosity but also that of ingenuity.

It's really just so cool to think about.

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Schuler Bauer
Barbara Shaw
Corydon Instant Print
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