Here's something to chew on. Doctors and engineers in the Netherlands have successfully performed a prosthetic jaw transplant for an 83-year-old Belgian woman with the help of a 3D printer. The innovative procedure helped the hospital cut costs while reducing the amount of time spent on patient care. Are we entering a new era for prosthetics? Here, a brief guide:
Why did the woman need a transplant?
The patient had developed a chronic bone infection in her lower jaw, and reconstructive surgery was "risky" because of her age, says BBC News. So doctors opted to remove her mandible entirely and use a transplant, which involved "articulated joints, cavities to promote muscle attachment, and grooves to direct the regrowth of nerves and veins."
Why use a 3D printer?
Three-dimensional printers are capable of building physical objects from scratch. (Read a primer here.) "You can build parts that you can't create using any other technique," says Ruben Wauthle of LayerWise, the 3D printing firm enlisted for the procedure. "For example you can print porous titanium structures, which allow bone in-growth and allow better fixation of the implant, giving it a longer lifetime."
How did the team print this jaw?
The team used thin, melted levels of titanium powder to "print" the prosthetic jaw, layer by layer, into a three-dimensional object. "It took 33 layers to build 1mm of height," says Wauthle, "so you can imagine there were many thousand layers necessary to build this jawbone." After the piece was finished printing, it was polished with a bioceramic coating of artificial bone, weighing in at 107 grams. That's about one-third heavier than her old jawbone, but doctors said her face muscles will get used to the added weight.
And the procedure?
Attaching the woman's new jaw took just four hours, says BBC News, "a fifth of the time required for traditional reconstructive surgery." And the prosthetic fit the patient "perfectly," says Monica DyBuncio at CBS News. "The surgery restored not just function but also the contour of the face in the patient." A day after the surgery, the 83-year-old could already speak again.
So what's next? Is this the future?
This treatment may have been the first of its kind, but the team expects "similar techniques to become more common over the coming years," says BBC News. And that's just scratching the surface of what 3D printing can offer the medical world. "At the moment we use metal powder for printing," says Wauthle. "To print organic tissue and bone you would need organic material as your 'ink.' Technically it could be possible — but there is still a long way to go before we're there."