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3D printer creates transplant jaw

7th February 2012

Doctors in the Netherlands have successfully replaced the lower jaw-bone of an 83-year-old woman using an artificial jaw made by a 3D printer.


The operation, the first of its kind, was carried out in June, but is only now being made public.

The fused-titanium powder implant was heated and moulded together using a laser, which built up the replacement bone one layer at a time.

The technical breakthrough means that more such 3D computer-built parts could be tailor-made for patients in future.

The operation was carried out on the basis of work by a Belgian research team, using technology and an implant built by a specialist metal-parts manufacturer there.

The team at the Biomedical Research Institute at Hasselt University in Belgium designed the complex implant, including joints and cavities, which was then built by LayerWise.

The operation rebuilt part of the patient's face after she developed a chronic bone infection. The woman was considered to be too old to receive traditional reconstructive surgery.

Cavities in the replacement jawbone are included to promote muscle attachment, while specially designed grooves direct the regrowth of nerves and veins.

The implant took only a few hours to "print" once it had been designed, however.

LayerWise medical applications engineer Ruben Wauthle said the laser printer operated by splitting the 3D design up into 2D layers, which were sent individually to the printing machine.

The machine built up the layers successively by fusing titanium powder together according to the specification.

The jawbone contained many thousand layers, with each milimetre needing 33 layers.

The titanium was coated in a bioceramic material and attached to the woman's face in an operation that took just four hours.

Traditional reconstructive surgery can take five times as long.

Doctors said the woman was able to speak soon after coming round from anaesthesia, and was able to swallow the next day.

Surgical team leader Jules Poukens of Hasselt University in the Netherlands said the operation was a world premiere because it was the first patient-specific implant used in a jaw replacement.

The woman, who went home four days after the operation, will soon have dentures screwed into the new jaw, which weighs only slightly more than human bone.

Similar techniques using 3D modelling and printing are expected to become increasingly common over the next few years.

Wauthle said the technique greatly decreases surgery time because the implants fit the patient perfectly.

Last year, a separate project at Washington State University showed how 3D-printer-created ceramic scaffolds could be used to promote the growth of new bone tissue.

That technique could be available for use on humans within 20 years.

Experts said that the ultimate goal was to print body organs ready for transplant, but that the huge biological and chemical issues involved were unlikely to be resolved in the next few decades.

To print organic tissue and bone, organic material would be used as "ink," and that technology is still beyond human reach.

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