GREENVILLE, S.C. — For Lily Larimer, having a "robot hand" is a great way to break the ice and play with her friends at school.
Her parents say it gives her confidence and the ability to do things she otherwise wouldn't be able to do.
And for the team in Greenville that produced the little girl's prosthetic hand, it's a rewarding way to help children with limb differences.
Now 8, Lily was born with a limb deficiency of her right hand, her mom, Kristy Larimer, told The Greenville News.
Though it hasn't slowed her down, Lily, who's about to enter the third grade at Greenbrier Elementary School, can't grip things with that hand.
So when the Simpsonville family saw a notice about a program that offers 3D printed limbs to children, they signed her up. And before long, the sprightly little towhead was fitted with what she calls her robot hand.
"She uses it a lot of times when she needs a little extra help," her mom said. "It's something that's precious that she's blessed to have."
The 3D printing program is led by three second-year students from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville - Tanner Karp, Dan Strat and Rikki Williams - who are members of Hands Up Greenville.
It's the local chapter of e-Nable, a national organization that provides 3D-printed alternatives to children around the world who don't have access to prosthetics, Strat said.
Medical students Bree Baginski, Julia Prodoehl and Zachary Reynolds also were involved in the project.
Phillip Ott of the school's IT department and Brandon Lawhorn, a prosthetist-orthotist with Prisma Health-Upstate's Center for Prosthetics and Orthotics, round out the team.
3D printing is a growing part of medicine, with implants like hip joints, surgical instruments and other medical devices being produced with the technology as well as prosthetics, according to the U.S Food and Drug Administration.
And researchers are looking at it for fashioning organs, like hearts and livers, one day.
The process of creating Lily's "robot hand" started with e-Nable, which offers several hand designs on their website that can be edited and customized according to patient preferences and needs, Strat said.
Then, inside the printer, plastic tubing is heated and pushed through nozzles to lay down a pattern, one thin layer after another, until it forms parts of a hand, Karp said.
The parts are produced individually - wrist, palm, digit, he said, noting that Lily's has a full grasp and is actuated by her wrist. It took about a week to print all the parts for her hand.
The 3D printed hands are perfect for children because they outgrow their prostethics as they mature, Karp said. And professionally-made prosthetic limbs now on the market are too expensive to replace as often as children need them, he said.
"This is easy to replace," he said. "And this is free (to families)."
Basic prosthetic hands run between $7,000 and $10,000 each with myoelectric hands upwards of $30,000 apiece, said Lawhorn, who makes sure the 3D prosthetics fit properly and don't cause injury to the limb.
"This is great because we couldn't afford to get her a prosthetic every year," Lily's dad, Mark Larimer, said.
The 3D printer cost about $5,000 and the process uses about $50 worth of plastic on a hand, Ott said. But the printer was acquired for any medical use and in addition to hands, it's produced plastic models of viruses, skulls, trilobites and other teaching aids, he said.
3D printing is the wave of the future in medicine from orthopedics and hand surgery to pulmonology and cardiovascular surgery, the medical students say, adding that the doctor of the future is one who is technology savvy.
Saying the technology gets them in touch with their engineering side, the medical students are clearly delighted to have helped Lily.
They've also made 3D hands for two adults - one for a man who simply yearned to be able to hold a tooth brush with one hand and apply toothpaste with the other.
Though it was originally set to have a Nemo design in honor of Lily's favorite character, everyone agreed that her hand looked like Thanos' Infinity Gauntlet of Marvel Comics fame when it was finished, Williams said.
"So we added jewels ... so Lily could snap her fingers and turn everybody to dust," she said with a chuckle.
"At recess at school, we usually pretend that I'm Thanos," Lily said. "And I like that."
Over time, Lily has collected 71 Nemo toys, her dad says, adding that the title character in the Finding Nemo movie has one fin that's smaller than the other.
"He has a little fin like me on the same side," says Lily, offering a deeper explanation.
The family is part of a Facebook group called the Lucky Fin Project, which raises awareness about limb differences, Kristy Larimer said.
Aside from looking cool, the new hand helps Lily with activities of daily living.
Noting that this is her first prosthetic, her parents say it enables her to get used to the devices, and that will benefit her in the future.
"It's a great thing. It will really help Lily out," her dad says. "I always tell her, 'Just try and you can accomplish whatever you want.' "
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