3D printing offers new tech for replacement knees

KIRKLAND, Wash. — Aging baby boomers are fueling demand for a fast growing surgery: knee replacements. There are between 750,000 to 1 million new knee-replacement surgeries every year. One of the newest options harnesses 3D printing to create a customized knee.

As an architect, Joe Herr has an eye for how things come together. So when pain in his knees made it hard to explore homes being built, he wanted another sort of architect – one who specializes in the design and construction of replacement knees.

“I would usually need help to step down off the house or hold on to something,” Herr said. “The nurses ask you about pain on a scale of one to 10. I was a 9. A 9 or a 10.”

Dr. Vincent Santoro of Evergreen Health Orthopedics has performed upwards of 3,000 knee-replacement surgeries, and he’s moving more of his patients towards the newest tech, a 3D printed knee.

He sent a CAT scan of Herr’s knee to a company called Conformis. The company used the scans and 3D printing to create a replica of his knee, which served as a mold for an implant, specially shaped and sized to fit Herr’s anatomy.

“That’s important. People want something to fit them well,” Santoro said. “They want to have the form that goes with it, but they want their function back. And I think that’s the key thing. A lot of people are getting their function back faster.”

Customized knees are so new, it’s too soon to know how long the hardware will last. But Santoro believes because of the personalized fit, it could be five to 10 years longer than a conventional knee replacement.

Herr had his right knee replaced in 2016, and he just did his left knee in January.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘That’s just cutting edge.’ I got to there. I got to be one of the people who does this,” he said.

Now when he walks construction sites, he’s back to thinking about how the home feels, instead of his knees.

Santoro said the cost of a customized knee is about the same as a conventional replacement.

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