News Feature | April 1, 2014

Woman Has Entire Skull Replaced With 3D Printed Implant

By Joel Lindsey


Surgeons at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, have successfully implanted a plastic, 3D-printed cranium replacement as treatment for a rare skull disorder.

The patient, a 22-year old woman, suffered from a disease that caused her skull to grow without stopping. By the time she received her skull replacement, her cranium had grown to five centimeters thick — more than three times thicker than the average human skull — and had begun to affect her eyesight and the flexibility of her facial muscles.

In the past, repairs to damaged skulls were performed with specialized cement implants. According to neurologist Ben Verweij, the lead surgeon in the skull implant operation, these older techniques were often imprecise and in some cases ineffective.

“Implants used to be made by hand in the operating theater using a sort of cement which was far from ideal,” Verweij said in an article published by Dutch News. “Using 3D printing we can make one to the exact size. This not only has great cosmetic advantages, but patients’ brain function often recovers better than using the old method.”

Verweij said that the operation he performed is the first of its kind in the world. Last March, a patient in the United States had 75% of his skull replaced with 3D printed material, but a full skull replacement like the one executed by Verweij is a new development.

The replacement cranium was printed using detailed images of the patient’s skull, and was manufactured by the Australian firm Anatomics. According to the technology news site Extreme Tech, the 3D printed skull implanted in the U.S. last year was made of polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), but not the new implant.

“PEKK and its larger family of related plastics are extremely strong and temperature resistant,” an article from the site said. “However, this new implant appears to be made from some new and rather mysterious material.”

With this latest breakthrough, the medical applications for 3D printing continue to expand.

Earlier this month, for example, Med Device Online covered the story of an 18-month old who received potentially life-saving treatment when his doctors used a 3D-printed splint to help support his windpipe.

For more on 3D printing’s future in the medical device industry — and the obstacles it faces — read the recent Med Device Online editorial 3D Printing In Medicine: 4 Questions That Need To Be Answered.

Image credit: UMC Utrecht