Revolutionary 3D-printed artificial knee is tailored to the patient

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Scientists have created an artificial knee implant that’s customized to a patient’s leg using 3D printing technology.

Unlike traditional knee replacement using generic devices, the bespoke implant preserves a person’s existing knee joint.

David Tarbet, 55, was among the first to receive the implant, known as a high-tibial osteotomy (HTO) plate.

It “was fantastic,” Tarbet said of his ability to participate in a competitive bicycle ride six months after the surgery.

“Although it was quite sore for a couple of months, I was able to get on an indoor bike quite quickly,” Tarbet told the BBC.

The 3D HTO plates were developed by medical researchers at the University of Bath Centre for Therapeutic Innovation and Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in the UK.

Knee replacement surgery is usually done to ease the pain caused by injury or arthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Surgeons will either replace one part of the knee that’s injured or worn out, or they may replace the entire knee joint, including the ends of bones and surrounding ligaments.

But the new bespoke HTO plates realign a patient’s knee, making it stronger, more stable and able to bear more weight than the existing generic plates commonly used.

The surgery with the customized plate should also be quicker and safer, doctors believe.

image of knee bones with surgical plate and pins
A new surgical procedure using customized 3D-printed knee plates makes the knee stronger and more stable.
Centre for Therapeutic Innovation, University of Bath

The osteotomy procedure to implant the customized device is ideal for younger patients because a traditional knee replacement won’t last very long.

“A knee has three ‘car tires’ — an inner, an outer and a kneecap,” Andrew Toms, director of orthopedics at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, told the BBC.

“A traditional total knee replacement replaces all of those,” Toms added.

But with the new procedure and 3D-printed device, surgeons “balance the knee out in those younger patients by re-aligning the knee, by taking the pressure off the worn car tires and straightening the limb out.

“That’s what this osteotomy, this technique is all about,” Toms said.

image of doctor examining woman's knee
The new 3D-printed plate and accompanying surgery could be preferable for younger patients.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

3D printing has the potential to revolutionize medical care by re-creating body parts that are customized to patients’ bodies.

Julian Callanan established Sinterex, a 3D printing company, in 2016 in the United Arab Emirates, where he prints 3D prosthetics for the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

“The way to think about 3D printing in medicine is that each person is different and this enables mass-customized manufacturing,” Callanan told National News in 2022.

“If you are having a knee replacement, the regular artificial joint comes in only four sizes. So, the patient is fitted to the implant, rather than fitting the implant to the patient — as you can do if it is 3D-printed,” Callanan added.

Richie Gill, who helped develop the new knee device at the Centre for Therapeutic Innovation at the University of Bath, told the BBC: “You can do it at a sooner point in the disease progression than you can with a knee replacement, so we are hoping to make it more widely available.”

A clinical trial is now recruiting participants across the UK for a study comparing traditional knee replacement with this new technique.

“I think more surgeons are interested in doing this type of joint-preserving surgery,” Gill added.

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