PHILADELPHIA -- It's hard to keep a good dog down, and Andy, a dachshund with Yoda ears and boundless energy, was as good as they get.
Ever since he joined Lorraine and Robert Young's Woodstown, N.J., home as a pup seven years ago, the little long guy had been a tireless source of laughter, licks and doggy love. This was especially valuable to Robert, who had a rare degenerative neurological disorder, multifocal leukoencephalopathy, that was increasingly limiting his mobility. As Robert's condition declined, Andy's favorite place to lounge became the spot right next to him on the recliner. Basically, Andy was wherever Robert and Lorraine were, with a wagging tail and an eager heart.
But one morning in July, when Lorraine had to call for Andy to come to her, she realized something was wrong.
"When he tried to come to me, he was dragging his legs," Lorraine said.
Alarmed, Lorraine brought Andy to St. Francis Veterinary Center in Woolwich Township, N.J., whose chief vet, Mark Magazu, had been caring for the Youngs' pets for 30 years.
The diagnosis: Andy was suffering from intervertebral disc disease, a dangerous condition in which the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spine push into the spaces between the discs. Overnight, the disease had paralyzed Andy's hind legs.
"The longer pressure is put on the spine, the faster permanent lesions can develop," said Magazu. "You have a better probability of success the faster you get" into the operating room to repair the damage.
But if time was of the essence, so was precision in the tricky surgery, which required minute manipulation and cutting around nerves.
Lucky for Andy, St. Francis is taking part in a pilot program with Thomas Jefferson University's Health Design Lab, which is exploring the clinical use of 3D printing for veterinary patients. Jefferson's staffers quickly created a 3D replica of Andy's damaged spine based on data from his CT scan that was then used to guide and inform his surgery the next morning. Andy's procedure was the first surgical application of the pilot program.
The technology to create models like Andy's has been around for a few decades, but it has been extremely costly and not in widespread use. In recent years, however, 3D printing is being increasingly explored as an aid in surgeries and other procedures, especially those that are highly individualized.