3-D printing research opens new possibilities

When the Ontario Veterinary College’s Michelle Oblak used a 3-D printed custom titanium plate for surgery on a dog’s skull, the procedure not only marked a veterinary first in North America, but it also signalled a potential new breakthrough in cancer research.

Along with Cornell University small-animal surgeon Galina Hayes, Oblak removed a large cancerous tumour growing on an eight-year-old dachshund’s skull and replaced it with a 3-D printed custom implant that fit in place like a puzzle piece. Their research breakthrough made national and international headlines.

“The technology has grown so quickly, and to be able to offer this incredible, customized, state-of-the-art plate in one of our canine patients was really amazing,” says Oblak, assistant co-director of U of G’s Institute for Comparative Cancer Investigation and board-certified veterinary surgical oncologist at OVC.

In her translational research, Oblak is examining dogs as a disease model for cancer in humans. She studies use of digital rapid prototyping for advance planning for surgeries and 3-D printed implants for reconstruction.

Oblak operated on the dachshund, named Patches, at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine with Hayes, a former OVC colleague.

The dog’s tumour had grown so large that it was weighing down her head and growing into her skull, pushing dangerously close to her brain and eye socket. Without surgery, Patches was expected to live only a few weeks; the procedure extended the dog’s life by seven months.

Oblak mapped the tumour’s location and size. She worked with an engineer from Sheridan College’s Centre for Advanced Manufacturing Design and Technologies to create a 3-D model of the dog’s head and tumour so she could “virtually” perform the surgery and see what would be left behind once the growth was removed.

“I was able to do the surgery before I even walked into the operating room.”
She also worked with ADEISS, a 3-D medical printing company in London, Ont., to adapt software designed for human medicine. Together they created a skull plate to replace the part she planned to remove from Patches’ head.

Typically, she says, surgeries of this kind take a long time. Once the portion of skull is removed, surgeons must assess the damage and shape titanium mesh over the spot.

The new technique will eliminate the need to model an implant in the operating room and reduce patient risk by shortening the time spent under anesthesia. Oblak sees tremendous potential for 3-D printed implant technology to be transferred to humans.

“In human medicine, there is a lag in use of the available technology while regulations catch up. By performing these procedures in our animal patients, we can provide valuable information that can be used to show the value and safety of these implants for humans,” she says.

“These implants are the next big leap in personalized medicine that allows for every element of an individual’s medical care to be specifically tailored to their particular needs.”