Limerick scientists’ project 3D prints breast prostheses for cancer patients

24 May 2023

EmmaJude Lyons, PhD researcher; Dr Lorraine Walsh, consultant radiation oncologist, Mater Private Network Limerick; Chwanrow Baban, UHL; and Kevin J O’Sullivan, UL. Image: UL

3D printing breast prostheses could improve the quality of life for women with breast cancer, particularly if they cannot have reconstructive surgery.

A group of researchers from University of Limerick (UL) have come up with a method to digitally manufacture custom prostheses for breast cancer patients.

The scientists are now making it a pilot service for patients with breast cancer as well as healthcare professionals.

The prostheses can potentially be produced onsite in Limerick and are cheaper to produce than many commercial alternatives.

“The ability to provide bespoke prostheses, regardless of shape and size, to perfectly match the residual breast is a significant improvement over the current standard of care for women who have undergone a mastectomy,” said Dr Kevin J O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan is one of the leaders of the project. He is a senior research fellow at UL’s Rapid Innovations Unit.

The Rapid Innovation Unit is a collaborative research group between UL and University Limerick Hospital Group which has extensive experience in the use of 3D printing in medical settings.

Some of the other bespoke devices it has made for specific patient needs include devices for treating hypergranulation, patient accessories such as modified crutches, an articulated headrest accessory, bespoke eye covers, modified cutlery for arthritis sufferers and call bells for patients with reduced mobility.

According to O’Sullivan, there are “significant limitations” to existing, standard breast prostheses and this is affecting patients’ recovery and wellbeing.

“There is a need for a renewed focus on quality of life and the application of user-centric design to develop innovative solutions for these patients.”

3D printing in general has long been touted as a way for medics to personalise treatments for individual patients.

O’Sullivan singled out “incredibly talented” PhD researcher EmmaJude Lyons for her work on the project. Lyons’ research is funded by Breakthrough Cancer Research. She took the project “from concept to advanced prototypes in a few short months,” he added.

Orla Dolan, CEO of Breakthrough Cancer Research, said “It is fantastic to support new ideas and emerging talent who are actively responding to the unmet needs of people with cancer. We are so excited to see this pilot project expanding to the benefit of more people right at the point of care.”

The initiative has also been awarded funding through the Public Service Innovation Fund by Our Public Service and the Department of Public Expenditure NDP Delivery and Reform.

As well as UL researchers, University Hospital Limerick (UHL) medics were involved in the research.

Chwanrow Baban, consultant general and oncoplastic breast surgeon at UHL’s Symptomatic Breast Unit, described the pilot as “a gamechanger for women who have had a mastectomy” as well as those who have chosen not to or cannot have breast reconstruction.

“Available options for prosthesis are not always the best fit for our patients and this exciting project is all about improving the quality of life for women post-mastectomy.”

He added that he was not aware of any other service of this kind in Ireland. “This is the first service of its kind in Ireland, and we are not aware of another breast service in the world that is offering this to women.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.