In an operation, claimed to be the first of its kind in the world, surgeons in The Netherlands have replaced an elderly patient's lower jaw with a 3D printed mandible. The 83-year old patient had developed a chronic bone infection, which meant that her lower jaw had to be removed. Reconstructive surgery was deemed too risky because of the patient’s age and her condition made breathing and swallowing difficult.
A research team at the Biomedical Research Institute at Hasselt University in Belgium worked with metal parts manufacturer, Layerwise, to build the prosthetic jaw. Although a jaw is a complex object, it only took a few hours to print once the design had been fed into the printer. The jaw was created using thousands of layers of thin layers of melted titanium powder, built up to produce the finished object, which was then given a bioceramic coating.
The operation to attach the prosthetic jaw took four hours, just a fifth of the time required for conventional reconstructive surgery. Shortly after waking from the anaesthetic, the patient was able to speak and she was swallowing normally the following day. Although the prosthetic is a third heavier than a natural jaw, at 107 grams, doctors said the patient should have no problems getting used to the extra weight.
Ruben Wauthle, the applications engineer for Layerwise, expects techniques such as this to become more common in the near future. 'The advantages are that the surgery time decreases because the implants perfectly fit the patients and hospitalisation time also lowers - all reducing medical costs. You can build parts that you can't create using any other technique. For example you can print porous titanium structures which allow bone in-growth and allow a better fixation of the implant, giving it a longer lifetime.' As mentioned in our recent article, The Future of 3D Printing, the ultimate goal is to print organic tissue. There’s a long way to go yet but Wauthle believes that it may be possible.
by Anthony Morgan