Hong Kong turns to 3-D printers to tailor medical implants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 8:59am

3-D printers, which make solid objects based on digital images, are becoming more widely used in medicine.

The University of Hong Kong and the Productivity Council are conducting clinical trials of making finger-joint implants based on 3-D printed plastic models.

For years the city has been importing artificial finger-joint implants from the United States and Europe, but the sizes sometimes do not fit well. Now, locally made implants would soon be available, said the council's automation service general manager Derek Louie Chi-hang.

With the 3-D printing technology, images from patients' body scans are printed to create models. The council has made models of supporting braces used in bone operations as well as fractured skulls to help doctors design operations.

"Compared with traditional methods, 3-D printing is cheaper, faster and gives tailor-made results," Louie said.

A life-size skull model, for example, cost HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 when made using 3-D printing - half the cost of a similar model made through traditional production methods, he said.

The council had used 3-D printing for various purposes since 1994, Louie said. It was useful in making solid objects, mainly plastic, that were not for mass production, such as prototypes.

Now, as the technology matures and production costs are lowered, the applications of 3-D printing in biomedical engineering were being further explored.

In the artificial finger-joint project which started four years ago, plastic finger bone models were made using 3-D printers.

The models were then used in conceptual evaluation and motion testing, after which implants made of metal alloy were created based on these models.

The university had tested the implant on more than 10 patients so far.

Louie expects an increasing demand for the technology, given the city's ageing population, which will require more medical aids.