Melbourne neurosurgeon Paul d’Urso founded Anatomics 20 years ago to make customised 3D print cranial implants. With the advent of new, stronger materials such as powdered titanium Anatomics has expanded the range to load bearing spinal, heel and ribcage implants, hips and shoulders. A pioneering maker of 3D printed skull and bone implants held up as a beacon of innovation by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the government’s actions don’t match its rhetoric and are blocking his company’s growth.
The company now exports to 30 countries. It made a custom sternum and ribcage for a cancer patient in Salamanca, Spain, last year and created a heel implant to save the leg of a cancer patient. Its implants are distributed in Germany by B Braun. But when it comes to getting a rebate from Australian private health funds, there’s a problem. Custom 3D printed implants are not regulated or listed on the federal government’s prostheses list, which sets health fund reimbursement prices. That means health funds aren’t obliged to reimburse patients who get custom implants, and surgeons like Mr D’Urso have to negotiate rebates case-by-case, a time-consuming process that can take eight weeks and a lot of paperwork as well as wear thin on patients. That tilts the playing field in favour off off-the-shelf imported implants made by US medical device giants, which are on the prostheses list and qualify for automatic rebates. “The patient is going “I’m in terrible pain” and the doctor says, “Ok, I’ll use the off-the-shelf product”. We want to be regulated and then our business can accelerate and we can grow into a much bigger company and we can export it globally,” Mr d’Urso told AFR Weekend. “Our biggest hurdles are often just 20th century regulatory systems that are not allowing new technologies to emerge.” He said the locally 3D printed implants were better than imported off-the-shelf products, and could help the government achieve its goal of reducing the 40 per cent premium Australian patients pay for imported implants.
Anatomics’ 3D printed ribs were on display when Mr Turnbull and the former industry, innovation and science minister Christopher Pyne announced the government’s $1 billion innovation and science agenda at CSIRO’s Discovery Centre in December. It is just the kind of company that exemplifies the future of high-end manufacturing in Australia, Australian Advanced Manufacturing Council chairman John Pollaers told the The Australian Financial Review’s Innovation Summit on Thursday. Mr d’Urso said there was often a “disconnect” between these fine intentions and government actions. He said Anatomics enjoyed strong support from CSIRO’s manufacturing division, which is helping the company develop the titanium inks and 3D printing processes for complex operations such as replacing the Spanish patient’s sternum and ribcage. But with more support the industry would be able to process Australia’s abundant titanium into the inks and powders used in 3D printing, instead of sending the mineral sands overseas and buying the materials back at a large premium. “We are good at sending money and doing research but as soon as you put your head above the trenches and want to commercialise it, nobody knows what to do.”