Roger Ebert hasn't been able to talk for nearly four years after surgeons removed his lower jaw to stop cancer from spreading.
Ebert isn't alone. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans need facial reconstruction after disease and physical trauma strike.
It's more than a superficial problem, facial bone loss may leave patients unable to eat, talk, and breathe.
In a collaboration between University of Illinois and Ohio State University Medical Center, engineers are using aircraft design technology to build more personal three-dimensional (3-D) bone structures that could give the field of facial reconstruction a face-lift.
“The mid-face is perhaps the most complicated part of the human skeleton,” The University of Illinois' Glaucio Paulino says in a statement.
No doubt, reconstructing the face is difficult because of the fragile small bones involved and the location makes it easier to become infected by a bacterial infection.
By using topology optimization, patients like Ebert could soon have the option of choosing custom-made bone structures, instead of having to undergo surgery that involves more traditional methods of using patients' bones (from the leg, hip, or shoulder blade) to replace what is missing on their face.
The 3-D modeling works for designing materials for the tiles on the space shuttle and other planes. But using the technology to create bone structures for the face is novel.
Custom-made bone structures could reduce the deformities that occur during facial reconstruction.
But the face might not look exactly like it should, the researchers are more concerned with designing the bone structure for its optimal function. That way, the person will be able to chew properly and engage in other essential activities.
As it turns out, building a face requires the same engineering principles needed to design a building or parts of a car.
For facial reconstruction, the researchers would base each 3-D model on the individual's type of injury and the extent of bone loss.
The computer program would factor in things like blood flow and chewing. And then, the researchers would input the 3-D bone onto the patient's face to see how it would look like. However, all of this still belongs to the digital realm.
“The difference between what is done now and our design is that we take into account all of the loads on the structure. And this is not a generic shape. For each person, we could create a patient-specific design,” Alok Sutradhar, researcher of plastic surgery at Ohio State, says in a statement.
Now, all the researchers have to do is figure out how to actually make this for real. If an artificial bone is used, the researchers will need to make sure the bone is outfitted with proper blood supplies so it can grow and thrive in the body.
Ideally, the person's own body could be used to grow new bone tissue.
Watch the video here.