Breast cancer: Maintaining your beauty with 3D printing
The idea to use 3D scanning and printing techniques to create breast prostheses is fairly new, but very promising. It allows individual prostheses to be exactly matched to the shape and skin colour of a breast lost to surgery. A small team of researchers from South Africa is pioneering the approach. Read More
The idea to use 3D scanning and printing techniques to create breast prostheses is fairly new, but very promising. It allows individual prostheses to be exactly matched to the shape and skin colour of a breast lost to surgery. A small team of researchers from South Africa is pioneering the approach.
Globally, over one million women are diagnosed with breast cancer ever year and face a very difficult decision. While the female breast is not an essential organ, choosing to amputate one or both breasts is never easy, even if it is the only chance for survival. While surgeons today try to remove only the affected tissue to preserve as much of the breast as possible, sometimes a radical mastectomy is necessary.
Worldwide, breast cancer is the most prevalent type of invasive tumour in women. In many countries, it is also the most common cause of death for women between the ages of 30 and 60. Although public discourse on breast cancer is now widespread, mastectomies were considered a taboo topic until very recently. It took prominent women like Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate speaking out about their experience of breast amputation to highlight the issue in the public eye.
Following a mastectomy, women can chose between breast reconstruction surgery and wearing prosthesis to preserve the natural look of breasts. Many opt for the first, which involves stretching the skin over the missing breast, then inserting either an artificial breast implant or tissue from another part of the body. But surgery always involves risk, and sometimes the results are far from satisfactory. Depending on how much of the breast had to be removed, women are often left without nipples and with very prominent and visible scars. Not every patient can or wants to undergo the procedure.
Worldwide, breast cancer is the most prevalent type of invasive tumour in women.
Options following a mastectomy
Often used in breast augmentation, artificial implants filled with silicone gel or saline solution are inserted under the skin or muscle of the breast to shape and contour the breast.
TRAM flap surgery
The surgeon removes fat, skin and/or muscle (a flap) from another part of the body (usually the stomach or back) and shapes it to create a new breast. Many young women choose this method.
Breast prostheses are inserts that imitate the shape and weight of the natural breast. They can either be worn inside the cup of a specially designed bra, or attached to the skin with adhesive. With the second option, women can even enjoy sunbathing topless again, assuming the colour doesn’t differ too much from the tanned skin around it.
Breast prostheses are a good way to go in many cases, states Nneile Nkholise, founder of the South African Likoebe Innovations. Some can even be attached to the skin with adhesive and look remarkably natural. “Breast cancer is one of the leading cancers, but minimal work has been done to ensure that we introduce custom-made breast prostheses that can be an alternative to breast reconstruction.” Together with a small team of researchers, Nneile is working to change this using a new and promising technology: 3D scanning and printing.
Breast prostheses from a 3D printer
3D printer is the general term used for machines that do what is known as additive manufacturing. Using a digital 3D model, a 3D printer can create a 3D object fully automatically. Instead of ink, the machine uses substances that can be shaped, often plastics, resins and similar substrates.
Using 3D printing to make prostheses, like artificial arms and legs, has increased in popularity in recent years. It allows an individual prosthesis to be created for the best possible fit. But except for a few European firms that began producing the first prototypes in 2015, 3D modelling is not in widespread use for breast prostheses so far. Likoebe Innovations is the first company on the African continent to explore the technique.
To make a breast prosthesis, the Likoebe Innovations staff first scans the patient’s breast area with a high-resolution laser or CT scanner. Modelling software creates a digital 3D model from the scan, which can then be replicated by a 3D printer. A fused deposition modelling printer that works with meltable polymers works best for printing a mould of the breast prosthesis.
Nneile and her team employ an e-skin device that measures a person’s skin colour so the prosthesis matches as closely as possible. It tells the designer what intrinsic paints to mix into a biocompatible platinum silicone, so that the prosthesis will match the exact skin tone in all lighting conditions. This silicone-paint mixture is cast in the printed mould and placed in a kiln.
Women engineers improving health care in Africa
The rate of breast cancer in South Africa is on the rise, and demand for prostheses is so high that the few African conventional prosthesis manufacturers can hardly keep up. “Conventional prosthesis production processes are time consuming and require highly skilled people who can sculpt a new prosthesis. But we don’t have enough artistically skilled people to meet the ever-increasing demand for prosthesis.”
3D modelling takes both the individual body’s anatomy as well as skin pigmentation into consideration.
3D modelling is a design process that takes both the individual body’s anatomy as well as skin pigmentation into consideration and requires less human intervention. Likoebe Innovations is scaling up to produce perfectly fitting breast prostheses that are less expensive and invasive than breast reconstruction surgery.
So far, Likoebe Innovations has come out with two prototypes for testing and plans to officially launch operations in 2017. The young team of researchers has established a network of medical professionals, primarily breast surgeons, to partner in the venture. They are offering to produce individual prosthesis for their patients as proof of concept.
Furthermore, Likoebe Innovations wants to raise awareness of the risks of breast cancer. “There are women with cancer who do not consider a mastectomy because they do not want to lose a breast and because many don’t know much about prosthesis rehabilitation,” Nneile says. “We are currently doing some work to determine possible ways of detecting cancer-carrying cells very early in the breast, before they manifest rapidly, and also advise women to undergo mastectomy early before the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.”
For her determination to improve prosthesis production in Africa, 27-year-old Nneile was nominated top female innovator in sub-Saharan Africa at the World Economic Forum 2016. The jury was convinced that Likoebe Innovations would have great positive impact on healthcare in Africa, even though Nneile is a mechanical engineer who specialises in additive manufacturing and not a medical doctor. “There is a great need for mechanical engineers with expertise in 3D design for custom prosthesis and implant production,” she explains.
While working on a related research project, Nneile noticed that prosthesis demand far outstripped the supply the few prosthesis manufacturing companies in South Africa could provide. She was convinced women needed to take an active role in creating solutions to meet the challenges women face, like breast cancer. Likoebe Innovations was founded by a team of four young women under the age of 30, two of whom are engineers. “I believe that Likoebe Innovations’s purpose should be to create opportunities for talented women interested in the application of additive manufacturing in medicine. They should create products that have a meaningful impact on women’s lives.”
“They should create products that have a meaningful impact on women’s lives.”