A cancerous tumor the size of an orange had completely deformed the head of 'Patches', a nine-year-old dachshund dog that lives in Pennsylvania (USA).
Alerts began in 2014 when the owner of the pet, Danielle Dymeck, noticed an abnormality. "The veterinarian did not know what it was, but we worried when in the last few months, out of nowhere, the ball started to grow a lot and very quickly," Dymeck said in an interview with El Tiempo newspaper in Colombia.
His case was referred to specialists at Cornell University in New York, recognized for his veterinary program. There they gave him the final diagnosis: 'Patches' had to be operated as soon as possible because the tumor was pressing dangerously on his brain and one of his eyes. "There was no option, we knew it was to take her to surgery or to sleep her," said the owner.
But, without imagining it, his story had a spectacular end that drew a line in the field of animal reconstruction surgery.
Canadian doctor Michelle Oblak, veterinary oncologist at the University of Guelph, along with two other specialists from the United States, not only eliminated the tumor but, using 3D printing technology, managed to rebuild the skull of the dog.
It was a pioneering procedure in the United States: they had to remove 70 percent of their skull and then inserted a titanium plate printed in 3D that would replace that space.
The specialists performed a CT scan of the pet's head to simulate the surgery and cut the tumor with virtually multiple software programs. They then plotted the dimensions of the new skull, including the points where the screw holes would be, and finally sent the digital images and plans to Adeiss, a Canadian 3D printing company. Then, the firm was responsible for creating the titanium plate that was perfectly made to the exact size of the animal.
"I was able to do the surgery even before entering the operating room," Oblak said in a statement to the University of Guelph.
"What was really interesting in this case was the fact that we were able to take those images and create a plate that fitted the dog perfectly," added Oblak, who noted that without 3D technology the process would have been much longer and tedious, for usually the titanium mesh is molded in a general model, which then must be modified, already during surgery, for the patient.
Several veterinarians and software engineers participated in the process, which ended with a successful operation carried out on March 21.
"It was very difficult because even though she had a lump on her head she was acting completely normal and we took her to surgery without knowing if she was going home. It was five long hours of uncertainty, the plate had to fit perfectly in his head and surprisingly in the end they did it, "says Dymeck.
Half an hour after the intervention, 'Patches' was already walking and two days later he was back at home. The cancer is gone and at 10 years old, today has a normal life.
"When she had surgery, there was a lot of extra skin that was left over and her ear was not where it should be. However, looking at it is difficult to notice that he had surgery, the scar is very minimal, "says Dymeck.
The company Adeiss donated the piece for 'Patches', valued at around $ 10,000. Of the $ 20,000 that surgery cost, Dymeck had to pay $ 4,000.
But every penny, every moment of uncertainty and every moment of anguish, in the end, was worth it. The episode, in addition, had a much more special relevance for Dymeck. His mother died of cancer, so any contribution or advance in an investigation related to this disease has a transcendental meaning.
"I hope that the experience is useful for other animal cases and that it also helps in some research for human beings. That is my greatest hope, "he said.
But above all, says Dymeck, everyone involved in the process is confident that 3D printing is increasingly used in medical procedures.
"Thanks to this, the surgeons could practice and feel safe. At the time of the operation they were already very familiar with Patches' head and the way it should be. I think it's a technology that offers a great benefit for medicine, "he said.
3D printing of metal parts is often used in humans, in dental procedures. Numerous advances have been made in terms of printing parts for more complex surgeries.