In an amazing development for the world of 3D printing and bioprinting, a human ribcage has been replaced by a porous printed replica in New York this week. The rib cage was printed using Australian technology and is only the second successful implant in history.
So, why 3D print a ribcage and sternum?
The recipient, Penelope Heller received a diagnosis of chondrosarcoma in 2014 and had to have her sternum subsequently removed. The use of 3D printing means that Heller’s new implant mimics the exact shape of the removed ribcage, reducing any pain or discomfort that may occur from the implant.
Print technicians have utilised a porous polyethylene material to create the implant. The material is more flexible than traditional titanium counterparts, and the porous surface encourages the integration of tissue and the artificial ‘bone’.
What are the ethical implications of such an implant?
Looking at such an outstanding example of what modern medicine can achieve, we must also step back and consider the future of this possibility. Ethical concerns have been raised in the past about developing such an expensive and tailored solution. How can we ensure that these life-saving implants are not solutions available only to the rich? Creating solely personalised solutions are potentially widening the divide between classes. As time goes on, however, the cost of 3D bioprinting should lessen, thus making costs for life-saving implants less prohibitive.
Concerns for the safety of the implant for the patient, and the ethical dilemma of human enhancement are also ideas that spring to mind. The 3D printed implant is stronger than human bone, and less likely to break. Should the technologies continue to advance, people may start to look to enhance their bones, muscles or entire bodies to be less susceptible to our human vulnerabilities. We need only look to sporting stars and performance enhancing drugs to recognise the desire to better our physical capabilities.
In its current iteration, this development of 3D printing could only serve to better the lives of patients with terminal bone diseases by providing a quick and tailored solution. It’s in looking to the future of bioprinted implants that we’ll need to be wary.
– Eliza Brockwell
Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs