Although we’ve seen how 3D printing has been used in a variety of surgical procedures as an aid for medical professionals to both practice a procedure before a surgery as well as a reference model during a surgery,

it is perhaps the applications that involve making life better for young children that are among the most heartwarming, such as recent efforts that are being made by the World Craniofacial Foundation (WCF).  

The foundation, which seeks to give normal lives to those who suffer craniofacial defects, recently teamed up with professor Frank Graewe, MD to help reconstruct the faces of two African girls with serious skull deformities. Grace, a seven-year-old girl from Zambia, was born with her eyes extremely wide apart and with no bone separating her brain from her oral cavity while Akikere, a six-year-old from Nigeria, suffers from Crouzon syndrome, a genetic disorder characterised by the premature fusion of the skull bones and cranial base.

To ensure that both of the girls received adequate care, the WCF facilitated in bringing them to Cape Town to be treated by Professor Graewe and a team of visiting WCF surgeons at the Tygerberg Academic Hospital.

“Neither of these patients would have been able to lead a normal life without these surgeries and both patients are recovering well,” says Graewe, a micro-surgeon was also part of the team who performed the world’s first successful penile transplant. “The WCF were looking for a reliable unit to conduct the surgeries, and I was happy to put our team forward."

In order to ensure that both of the young patients were given the best care possible, the medical team wasted no time utilizing next generation technologies to ensure that the results would be as intended.  Among them, was the decision to use 3D printing for each of the patients for the surgeons to be able to both practice on beforehand as well as use the models for reference during the actual surgical procedure. 

To create the 1:1 3D printed replicas, each girl had CT images taken that were then sent to the US to be cleaned up and 3D printed before being sent back to Tygerberg Academic Hospital.  While the 3D printed models were critical for both of the patients, Grace’s model in particular was critical in the manufacture of an artificial bony structure that, as she ages, will be transformed into natural bone.To assist Professor Frank Graewe for both of the surgeries were Dr Kenneth Salyer, the Founder and Chairman of the World Craniofacial Foundation, along with two neurosurgeons, Professor Bennie Hartzenberg, the Chief Neurosurgeon at Tygerberg Academic Hospital, and Dr Derek Bruce a paediatric neurosurgeon from Washington. In total, the cost of the modeling and the framework for each of the surgeries was $70,000; without help from the pro bono doctors, these surgeries would have likely never happened for the young girls.  

 “As chairman of the WCF,” said Dr Sayler, “I am thrilled that these surgeries were performed here in South Africa. The expertise and passion that the team showed was incredible and we are very happy with the progress of our young patients.”  

Altogether, the surgeries took eleven hours to complete and both patients are recovering well; while Grace has returned to Zambia to be with her friends and family, Akikere is still recovering well at the hospital.

“We need to push the limits and boundaries of technological advancements to ensure that patients with these types of defects have the best possibility of leading a normal life,” added Dr Bruce.  “Our work on Grace’s case was groundbreaking, and we are very pleased that we were able to utilise 3D printing in order to bioengineer bone for the surgery.”

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