A 12-year-old boy suffering from a rare form of bone cancer has become the first recipient of a 3D printed artificial vertebra replacement. The five-hour surgery was performed at Peking University in China where the boy is now recovering. Liu Zhongjun, Director of Orthopedics at Peking University, is the surgeon behind this groundbreaking operation: “So how did we produce a 3D printed artificial axis? We used a computerised tomography (CT) scan, converting CT data into 3D printing data in order to produce an internal fixation with exactly the same structure as the patient’s bone structure. When it is implanted into a human being, it perfectly matches the patient’s anatomical structure,” he said. Normally a diseased axis would be replaced by a standardized titanium tube. Such traditional orthopedic implants are made in standard geometric shapes, which means they typically don’t attach to the bone without orthopedic cement or screws. However, 3D printing allows doctors to make a prosthetic replacement perfectly customized to the patient’s needs. In this case, a titanium powder – the traditional orthopedic implant material – was used to create an exact replica of the bone. “The anatomical shape of this improved 3D printed artificial axis we used exactly simulates the structure of a normal axis. So it connects well and fits better with the upper and lower levels of the spine. It also increases the functional area fixed to the first vertebrae, dramatically enhancing the degree of stability, which also allows the patient to move very soon after surgery. And it allows for safer surgery, too” added Liu Zhongjun. The young patient, is now able to walk wearing protective gear to support his head, and will undergo chemotherapy to eradicate any possible remaining cancer cells.