Builder Len Chandler feared that he was going to lose his foot.
Bone cancer had eaten a hole in his heel and had made it difficult for him to walk.
But in July, the 71-year-old travelled from Rutherglen in Victoria to Melbourne to undergo a pioneering procedure using a titanium heel made in a 3D printer.
“I never knew the operation would be this successful or this important,” says Chandler.
“I thought it might be the first time this had been done in Victoria.
“I didn’t realise it would be the first time in the world.”
Chandler’s foot had been bothering him for years, but it wasn’t until April that he learned he had cancer in the calcaneus.
People with this type of cancer often lose the leg below the knee because it is difficult to replace the heel bone.
“It’s been annoying me for about six or seven years,” says Chandler.
“I’ve been to physiotherapists, podiatrists and acupuncturists.
“I tried everything – and then I half gave up.”
Finally, after an x-ray at a local hospital he was referred to St Vincent’s Hospital surgeon Professor Peter Choong, who was developing techniques with 3D printing.
“Other poor blokes that have had this cancer have probably had their foot off,” says Chandler.
“But I’m still going and it looks quite alright.”
A team led by Prof Choong used scans of Chandler’s left heel bone to create a 3D image of his right one.
Melbourne-based implant manufacturer Anatomics was brought in and created a mirror-image design to help in the creation of a new heel.
The CSIRO used its state-of-the-art Arcam 3D printer to build the implant from titanium.
Prof Choong, St Vincent’s Director of Orthopaedics, is internationally recognised for his expertise and research in bone and soft tissue cancers.
“It’s very exciting,” says Dr Choong.
“This is a great example of how advances in science and technology and research can be directed towards meeting a patient’s needs.”
Dr Choong says he’s spent years dreaming about this type of procedure.
“The idea is one of those things we often fantasise about – can I make something that’s exactly like the patient? Anyone in my field constantly thinks about that.
“Then you see the technology and it clicks.
“In this particular situation it was very helpful, because that bone that was removed was very complex in its shape and also its function.
“So having something that replicates that made a world of difference as to what we could actually achieve.”