Receiving a cancer diagnosis is already painfully hard, but imagine being told your particular type of cancer would cost you the function of your arms, legs, and then the ability to breathe and eat.
That was the case of Drage Josevski, when he received a diagnosis of chordoma, a rare cancer that affects the spine. His two upper vertebrae connecting to his skull had tumours.
To prevent an extremely painful death, neurosurgeons in Australia set out, for the first time in history, to remove Josevki’s cancer-riddled vertebrae and replace them with a titanium vertebrae created with a 3-D printer.
“It involves exposure at the top of the neck, where the neck and the head meet, and it’s essentially [detaching] the patient’s head from his neck and taking the tumour out and re-attaching his head back to his neck,” Neurosurgeon Ralph Mobbs told the ABC.
Without surgery the outlook would be particularly nasty, doctors said. Because the tumours were close to the head, Josevski wasn’t a good candidate for radiation, and had a low chance of survival.
According to the Chordoma Foundation, around two-thirds of people diagnosed with this type of cancer survive for five years. Survival rates drop dramatically after that.
Neurosurgeons at the Sydney Spine Clinic in New South Wales conducted a 15-hour operation in December to insert the 3-D-printed vertabrae – created by a company called Anatomics – at the top of Josevski’s spine.
“Without surgery and without treatment of this type of tumour, the outlook for this patient would be particularly nasty and a particularly horrific way of dying,” Mobbs said.
The procedure went well and Josevski is cancer free. He’s had a few complications like trouble eating and speaking but is expected to improve within six months.
Printing 3-D body parts could produce similar results for others, as technology increasingly allows bones and organs to be replaced, Mobbs said.
“3-D printing of body parts is the next phase of individualized health care.”