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As 3D printing continues to transform manufacturing, doctors are hoping it could also help the 30 million people worldwide in need of artificial limbs and braces



Daniel Omar, now 14, was fitted with a 3D-printed prosthetic arm after losing both arms during an aerial attack in Sudan. Photograph: Not Impossible/Project Daniel

John Nhial was barely a teenager when he was grabbed by a Sudanese guerrilla army and forced to become a child soldier. He spent four years fighting, blasting away on guns almost too heavy to hold, until one day the inevitable happened: he was seriously injured, treading on a landmine while he was on morning patrol.

“I stepped on it and it exploded,” he recalled. “It threw me up and down again – and then I tried to look for my leg and found that there was no foot.”

His comrades carried him back to base camp, but there was hardly any medical care available. It took 25 days before he received proper treatment, during which time he developed tetanus down one side of his body. Finally, Nhial (not his real name) was put on a flight to the Kenyan border, his life only saved when he was handed over to a Red Cross team.

Now, a decade later, he lives in a Juba refugee camp, having suffered further troubles in the conflict that has engulfed the struggling new nation of South Sudan. He plays wheelchair basketball for his country, although he relies on a prosthetic lower leg to struggle around the muddy, sprawling camp. Reaching the most basic services often entails long walks and it can be difficult to get to training. But at least his hands are free to carry things such as food and water, unlike those on crutches.

Such stories of lives devastated by conflict or disease are all too common in developing countries. Lack of an arm or leg can be tough anywhere, but for people in poorer parts of the world it is especially challenging. Some are victims of conflict, while others may have been born with congenital conditions. Many more are injured on roads, with the casualty toll soaring in poorer nations. In Kenya, half the patients on surgical wards have road injuries. The World Health Organization estimates there are about 30 million people like Nhial who require prosthetic limbs, braces or other mobility devices, yet less than 20% have them.

Prosthetics can involve a lot of work and expertise to produce and fit and the WHO says there is currently a shortage of 40,000 trained prosthetists in poorer countries. There is also the time and financial cost to patients, who may have to travel long distances for treatment that can take five days – to assess their need, produce a prosthesis and fit it to the residual limb. The result is that braces and artificial limbs are among the most desperately needed medical devices. However, technology may be hurtling to the rescue – in the shape of 3D printing.

Slowly but surely, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been revolutionising aspects of medicine since the start of the century, just as it has had an impact on so many other industries, from cars to clothing. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that its key benefit is to enable the rapid and cost-efficient creation of bespoke products. There are few commercial products that need to suit a wider variety of shapes and sizes than medical devices made for human beings.


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