$4m printer to improve outcomes for cancer patients

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Cancer patients needing bone replacement implants could soon benefit significantly thanks to a $6 million innovation hub at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney.

The cancer hospital’s new Sarcoma & Surgical Research Centre brings together clinicians and scientists from diverse disciplines to improve outcomes with advanced healthcare solutions.

Its showpiece is a $4 million 3D printer – one of only five in the world of its type – which will drastically cut procedure times.

Instead of waiting for titanium parts to be designed and sent from Europe, the printer allows clinicians to plan and print customised polymer replicas of the removed bone in just days.

“It will allow us to tackle the problems that we could have only dreamt of in the past,” the Lifehouse’s Chief Clinical Officer Professor Michael Boyer said.

The hospital’s sarcoma unit is the largest in Australia, with more than 250 patients a year from across New South Wales and interstate.

Sarcoma, a rare and often devastating cancer of the bone and soft tissue, affects 1,800 Australians every year – mainly adolescents and young adults. 

Removing the cancer often involves extensive surgery, including limb amputation and the use of prostheses. 

Titanium implants can also hinder radiation therapy, scattering the beams and making treatment less precise.

“When these young patients need a bone implant, we currently order the 3D-printed replacement from Europe, a process that takes more than eight weeks. The new technology will reduce this to a matter of days,” said Associate Professor Natalka Suchowerska, the Lifehouse's Director of Research, Medical Physics.

Health Minister Greg Hunt visits the new Sarcoma and Research Centre at Chris O'Brien Lifehouse.

A/Prof Suchowerska was part of a team looking into the possibility of using PEEK, a thermoplastic polymer, for bone replacement instead of titanium, which led to a $6 million Community Health and Hospitals Program grant from the Federal Government in May 2019.

Their search for a suitable printer capable of using a high-performance polymer such as PEEK at manufacturing standard took them to German company EOS.

“As luck would have it, they were very keen to explore the use of their printers for medical applications,” A/Prof Suchowerska said.

“PEEK has numerous advantages over the most commonly-used material now – titanium – in that it is bioinert and does not react with biological tissue and has a high load-bearing capacity, making it ideal for areas such as the jaw or pelvis,” she added.

Her collaborator on the project, Professor David MacKenzie from the University of Sydney, said they were looking into ways to treat the printed implants with plasma to create an anti-microbial effect. 

“This will improve integration into the body and help prevent infection. This is especially important for young people who will have the implant in their bodies for many years,” he said.

The centre officially launched in late November 2020, and A/Prof Suchowerska said the initial focus is to produce a PEEK implant that quickly integrates with the bone and has the mechanical performance to meet the patient’s needs, with no overgrowth or inflammatory response.

They will also investigate new medical applications for antimicrobial treatments, such as catheters and other medical devices.

“We hope to use the technology for all types of bone implants, not just limited to a cancer setting,” A/Prof Suchowerska said.

Read more: ‘Visionary step’ to treat rare cancers

Read more: A special group making a difference to patients at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse

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