A 22-year old woman in the Netherlands was the first to receive a successful skull transplant. The new skull was made from plastic with the help of a 3D printer. Thanks to this revolutionary new method, the woman's life was saved — and she is back at work.
The unnamed woman suffered from a rare condition that causes the skull bone to grow ever thicker. While the skull bone normally has a thickness of around 1.5 centimeters, this woman's skull was already five centimeters thick. The extra bone compressed the brain, leading to severe headaches as well as loss of sight and motor function. Had the surgeons not intervened, the condition would have killed the patient.
The fact that she received surgery is barely even noticeable, the surgeon added. The woman's life expectancy is now normal, and extra bone will no longer continue to grow thanks to the fact that she has a completely new skull.
Removing and replacing portions of the skull is not that unusual, particularly with illnesses like severe cranial concussion that lead to a swelling of the brain. Replacing the entire skull is novel, however, and the revolutionary surgery did not come without challenges. "We used to create an implant by hand in the operating theater using a kind of cement, but those implants did not have a very good fit," Dr Verweij pointed out.
The surgeon added: "Now, these parts can be precisely created using 3D printing customized. This not only cosmetically very large benefits, but patients often have a better brain function seen compared to the old method."
Leaving the original skull in place while removing the excess bone would not have been a permanent solution for the patient, whose condition led to the continuous growth of extra bone. Instead, the medical team decided to create a new, custom-made skull in cooperation with specialized Australian company Anatomics.
They used CT scans to determine the precise shape and size of the woman's skull, after which they used a 3D printer to create an acrylic copy, altered to remove the excess bone growth the woman was suffering from.
The skull transplant took a total of 23 hours. It took place three months ago, but was announced as a success by University Medical Center Utrecht staff on March 31. The UMC Utrecht said it was hopeful that similar techniques will be used more frequently in the future, for other bone conditions as well as skull injuries and tumors.