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Dutch doctors replace woman's skull with 3D-printed plastic copy

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Graphic video Doctors at the University Medical Center in Utrecht have saved a woman's life – by carrying out the first skull transplant using plastic parts built in a 3D printer.

The unnamed 22-year-old patient was suffering from a rare condition that caused the inside of her skull to grow extra bone, which squeezed her brain. The growth was discovered after she reported severe headaches and then lost her sight and motor control. If untreated, the extra bone would have killed her.

It's usual for surgeons to remove parts of the skull, normally when illnesses such as severe cranial concussion cause the brain to swell. But having to replace so much of the skull, as in this young woman's case, is unusual and fraught with problems.

"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," said pioneering surgeon Dr Bon Verweij.

"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."

The surgeons worked with Australian 3D printing firm Anatomics, which used CT scans to determine the precise shape of the patient's skull and then printed out a copy in acrylic, modified to remove the unwanted growth. They took off most of her cranium, and then fitted the artificial replacement in a 23-hour operation.

Warning: the video below is fairly gruesome, and you'll need to enable closed captions, unless you're fluent in Dutch.

The grueling operation was a success and the patient has made a full recovery, the hospital reports. Three months later and she is now back at work and is suffering no ill effects or visible scarring from the operation. ®

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