Surgeon uses 3D printing to help patients heal

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CHICAGO — Modern technology meets craftsmanship in cancer care. A tumor in the bone requires precise removal and reconstruction — that’s why a local surgeon is harnessing the power of 3D printing to help his patients find better healing.

Patient Michael Swiercz walks around with the help of a cane, but something a bit more modern is helping him heal after surgery.

Dr. Alan Blank, a doctor at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, made a 3D model of Swiercz’s tibia. It’s a simple model compared to some of the more dramatic pieces in Blank’s collection — this one a modern sculpture of sorts.

“Before the surgery I can feel the tumor and feel where the important arteries and nerves are so that when I go into surgery, I can actually put my hands around the tumor and I know where I am because I’ve been there before,” Blank said.

The 3D printed models help the orthopedic oncologist visualize an osteosarcoma — a rare form of cancer in the bone — and plan how he’ll remove the tumor and reconstruct the area, typically with donated cadaver bone.

“If we can get those surfaces of the bone perfect and the cuts on both the cadaver and the native bone perfect, they will have great contact, and they will heal,” he said.

It’s a technique he used to treat Swiercz, after a bump on his leg wouldn’t go away.

“I was in so much pain. I got an MRI done and found out it was a pretty decent size tumor in my leg,” Swiercz said.

“This is the cancer which was right in the middle of the bone there in the pink,” Blank said.

Blank works with a team of engineers and designers to build the 3D printed bone models, then he plans where he’ll make precise cuts.

A custom cutting guide is also printed. One for the patient’s bone to remove the cancer, another for the donor graft to ensure the exact cuts and angles are replicated — the best scenario for a perfect fit and proper healing.

“Once the bone is removed, there’s a big hole in the bone from here to here. I use another one of these cutting guides, the exact same one. I put it on the cadaver bone, and I can make exactly the same size of bone, which will fit perfectly right into here and will have the best chance of healing,” Blank said.

The donor bone in his leg will eventually fuse with his native bone.

“It took a lot of physical therapy but I’m very happy with the progress,” Swiercz said.

Blank also uses 3D printing to construct metal implants when cadaver bone isn’t an option.

To learn more about Dr Blank and Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush visit