3D printing from Leuven helps dogs walk again

Summary

What started out as a KU Leuven spin-off has been taken over by an American pioneer and is now using its expertise to create implants for injured dogs

Novel approach

Is there any sadder sight than a dog that’s limping and whining? Often the reason is cranial cruciate ligament disease, in which a dog’s rear knee ligaments are damaged – due to old age, injuries or a genetic disorder.

Traditionally, dogs get surgical treatment in which the damaged ligaments are repaired. At first glance, that makes sense, but the healing process is difficult: Two weeks of no movement and six further weeks of limited movement. Anyone who owns a dog will realise what an atrocious situation that can be – for everyone involved.

Another, entirely new, approach is to get round the problem by leaving the ligaments untouched. Dogs are still laid on an operating table, but, instead of repairing the knee, the vet inserts a new one. Such high-tech implants are common these days in veterinary medicine.

The implant that’s placed in the lower hind leg isn’t exactly an artificial knee. It doesn’t replace the bone structure of the dog’s knee, rather it supports it. The implant reorganises the mechanical forces and creates dynamic stability during walking and running. By altering the orthopaedic dynamics, the damaged ligaments are not used, and the dog is relieved of its pain.

“After having been equipped with an implant, a dog’s total recovery time is six weeks,” says Rob Snoeijs, spokesperson for LayerWise, a University of Leuven spin-off that specialises in 3D printing.

No limits

3D printing is one of the most promising technologies for the future of industrial manufacturing. Whereas traditional production techniques are limited by the complexity of the design, for 3D printing the sky is the limit. By “growing” objects layer by layer, the most daunting shapes and designs are attainable. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a Jack Russell or a Great Dane

- Rob Snoeijs

Since the 1980s, the practice, also known as additive manufacturing, has had a firm foothold in Flanders. LayerWise, which was founded in 2008, is just one of the many small but highly ambitious companies transforming local expertise in 3D printing into commercial success.

The core business of LayerWise is “selective layer melting”, a practice in which metal powder is melted precisely where the design requires it. By optimising this technique, the company has positioned itself among the elite producers of medical implants. It has already shown off its expertise in the fabrication of prostheses and dental and jaw implants in human medicine.

Development hub

That didn’t escape the notice of 3DSystems, an American pioneer in the 3D printing industry. Last September, LayerWise was taken over by the corporation. Exact figures are still unknown; the purchase was followed by months of silence, leading to rumours that the Americans had bought LayerWise just to cut out a promising competitor. But that wasn’t the case, insists Snoeijs.

“It takes time to absorb such an operation,” he says. “Inside the 3DSystems group, LayerWise is now considered the hub for further development of everything within metal 3D printing. For example: Jonas Van Vaerenbergh, our co-founder, is now head of the metal printing division.”

That means that one of LayerWise’s missions is searching the market for new opportunities. After having invaded the human implants market, the company saw its way clear to enter animal medicine. In collaboration with Rita Leibinger, a German producer of animal implants, and Ghent University’s  animal medicine division, it developed this new orthopaedic knee implant for dogs (pictured above).

That LayerWise scored a bull’s-eye is illustrated by its success: 10,000 dogs are already fitted with the implant. “The big advantage is that our dog implant is universally applicable,” says Snoeijs. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Jack Russell or a Great Dane.”