An industry collaboration between surgeons and engineers has been recognised for its life-changing impact.
Peak industry body Engineers Australia has named Professor Milan Brandt, technical director of RMIT University’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct, a Centenary Hero for the impact of his work.
The accolade, announced this year to celebrate 100 years of Engineers Australia, is reserved for engineers who have ’pushed boundaries, defied odds, and come up with innovations that no-one could have imagined 100 years ago’.
Brandt led research into Australia’s first locally-made 3D printed spinal implant, which was successfully delivered to the patient Amanda Gorvin in 2015.
Born with a rare spinal defect that stops one vertebra from fully forming, Gorvin says her quality of life had slumped to a ‘zero out of 10’, while her pain was an ’11 out of 10’.
“I had this chronic pain that impacted my entire life,” she says.
Commercially available spinal implants, which did not fit the specific gap in Gorvin’s spine, were deemed unsuitable.
So RMIT researchers, medical implant producer Anatomics and neurosurgeon Dr Marc Coughlan, teamed up to print and insert a custom designed implant for her.
The project had a short time frame - just six weeks from design to manufacture and implantation - and Brandt says designing a non-uniform structure that was able to support someone’s full body weight presented a significant challenge.
But they eventually produced a lattice titanium cage that would do just that, using RMIT-developed software tools and 3D laser printers to build the implant, layer by layer, from titanium metal powder.
The operation was a success and, just days into rehabilitation, Gorvin started walking.
A few weeks later she was almost completely pain free.
“I feel so blessed: this piece has given me my whole world back,” says Gorvin, who’s since become a mother.
“The relationship with the surgeons and the engineers working together to develop a piece – to the millimetre perfect – to go into my spine was unbelievable.”
“We were absolutely thrilled by the successful outcome,” says Brandt.
“This was the first such implant printed in Australia and implanted into a patient and research we’d worked on over many years into 3D printing was able to be used in a practical sense.”
The project’s success has since taken Milan and his team in a new direction, designing next generation implants for bone cancer patients.
This collaboration with Stryker, University of Technology Sydney, Innovative Manufacturing CRC and St Vincent’s Hospital is 3D-printing custom bone replacements where bone cancer tumours have been removed, allowing for as much as possible of the limb to be saved.
Brandt said industry collaboration has been the key to value creation at the Advanced Manufacturing Precinct, especially in the areas of biomedical devices, aerospace, defence and mining industries.
“We look to work with forward-thinking manufacturing companies, independent of size or background, in order to create an environment for innovation and collaboration where we can all learn and benefit from the interaction," he says.
Story: Michael Quin