55-year old Im Sang-deok – a pseudonym used due to privacy concerns – was having a hard time breathing and the lump in his chest was growing bigger and bigger. The prospect that his tumor could have returned frightened him.
Im had already undergone four surgeries on his chest and feared his sarcoma lump a malignant tumor in his sternum and rib lump had returned. His anticancer treatment was no longer working and the bump on his chest was now the size of a textbook.
With hopes of recovery fading, Im turned to Dr. Park Byung-joon and his team at Chung-Ang University. Dr. Park proposed a surgical chest transplant using 3D-printing technology to create a sternum and rib out of titanium. The procedure, if successful, would be a first in S. Korea. In fact, there were only five other successful cases around the world.
While the treatment is still in its nascent stages, Dr. Park wanted to ensure the tumor could not return by using titanium instead of conventional bone cement, but it would be impossible to make a prosthesis that would accurately fit Im's chest.
With the help of the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology, Dr. Park and his team designed an artificial ribcage that matched the reconstruction and underwent a surgery that would require an extensive resection. The sternum aimed for flexibility and support, keeping in mind regular chest movements for breathing as well as for emergency situations such as CPR.
Dr. Park said the surgery was a success and that Im is recovering well, but the process revealed significant issues in S. Korean society.
“The social perception of the technology remains extremely important. For example, we made this chest bone that was used, but in order to do so, we had to get several government approvals to protect the patient's safety. Although that protects the patients, it slows down development,” according to Lee Chang-woo of the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology.
Businesses in S. Korea have criticized the government's regulatory policies, especially as the country looks for a new growth engine in a period of stagnation.