Sophi, a 7-year-old Yorkshire terrier, was having trouble walking earlier this year. “There was instability in her gait,” Dana Coleman, Sophi’s owner, recalls, “and she couldn’t get up when she fell.”
Coleman, who lives on the Florida panhandle, took Sophi to the vet. Yorkshire terriers are small dogs — and Sophi is small for a Yorkie, just 3 pounds. Like many small breeds, Yorkies have delicate spines. In Sophi’s case, the top two bones in her neck slipped out of alignment, pinching her spinal cord and limiting her mobility. The local vet referred the Colemans to an animal hospital in Pensacola, but the doctors there couldn’t help Sophi.
So the Colemans took Sophi up to Alabama, to the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, and met with a neurosurgeon Dr. Don Sorjonen. Sophi’s small size, Dr. Sorjonen said, made the surgery especially challenging: He needed to attach metal plates to realign her bones without screwing them into her spinal cord.
Dr. Sorjonen teamed up with Dr. Adrien-Maxence Hespel, a veterinary resident who had recently received a MakerBot® Replicator® 2 Desktop 3D Printer that Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine had received with a grant for new technology. Using CT scans of Sophi’s neck, Dr. Hespel printed her neck bones at actual size, which allowed the neurosurgeon to prepare for surgery and the metal parts that would repair the damage.
“Off the field — before I could go into surgery — I could order screws and plates that fit the 3D printed spine model, and figure out how to direct the screws,” Dr. Sorjonen says. “Usually this only happens during the operation, and can take 45 minutes.”
The 3D-printed model didn’t just shorten Sophi’s operation; it made it possible, Dr. Sorjonen says. “Because it reproduced the vertebrae so precisely, I had the confidence that I could do the surgery,” he says. “I don’t think we could have done this without the 3D model, honestly.”
Since helping Sophi, Dr. Hespel has used MakerBot-generated models to remove a tumor from a dog’s throat and to reconstruct a horse’s fractured skull. And outside of the operating room, a 3D model “helps in communicating with the surgeons and the clients,” says Dr. Hespel. “It’s not creating more information, but it makes it easier for everybody to apprehend it.”
As for Sophi, she has recovered and her gait is much improved. “She still has some deficits,” says Dana Coleman. “She’s limited in her play, but she plays. And she still has that personality. She wants attention all the time.”