Making limbs using 3D printing technology

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In many low-income and middle-income countries, only 5%-15% of people who require assistive devices, including artificial limbs, have access to them. In areas that are remote or dangerous, specialized health professionals can be scarce and materials expensive. Poorly made or unadjusted artificial limbs can make life uncomfortable for patients by causing skin sores, pressure wounds, and muscle fatigue.

As a solution to some of these problems, Handicap International launched a new 3D printing technology trial in Togo, Madagascar, and Syria that uses a small, lightweight 3D scanner to create a digital mould of the amputated limb. The mould can then be adapted according to the patients’ needs using computer-modelling software before being sent to a 3D printer. The printer creates thousands of layers of thermoplastic to produce a bespoke socket that corresponds perfectly to the shape of the patient’s amputated limb.

With just 19 participants in the first phase of trials, it is still in its early days, but the preliminary findings show that the 3D printed sockets are a safe and effective alternative to current socket designs. The process saves time for medical professionals and allows for a lot of input from the patient. Importantly, the scanning materials required are portable and relatively simple to use. 

Our hope is that this will allow our teams to reach patients in remote or dangerous places. Much further research is required before this treatment option can be offered to patients. But as the first clinical trials conclude, we are pleased by the positive results.

“We are excited to move on to phase two of this research,” Isabelle Urseau, Handicap International’s head of rehabilitation explains. “These trials will involve more patients in different locations in order to thoroughly test our methods. 3D printing is unlikely to become the only way of providing prosthetics but we think it could be a great option in certain circumstances.”

The Handicap International project is in partnership with Strathclyde University and two industrial companies: ProsFit Technologies and Proteor SAS. Full results of phase one will be presented at the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics World Congress 2017 in Cape Town, May 8-11.