3D printing as a concept is not a new idea, but it is only recently that manufacturers are taking it seriously. It has the potential to change the mass production industry, but more than revolutionizing businesses, three-dimensional printing has began to permeate the field of medicine.
A team of researchers from Belgium and the Netherlands have reported that they have managed to successfully use three-dimensional printing methods to replicate and rebuild a female patient's jaw, in the first documented operation of its kind.
Carried out in the Netherlands, the operation was performed in June but only recently publicized. The patient was an 83 year-old woman suffering with a chronic bone infection, and due to her age was considered unsuitable for painful and potentially dangerous reconstructive surgery. Instead, doctors chose to create and fit a tailor-made replacement mandible through three-dimensional printing.
As a design process, 3D printing is formed through creating three-dimensional objects from a digital file. It is also known as 'additive manufacturing', due to object being formed through successive layers of material. Individual layers are no thicker than 0.004 in (0.1 mm), and models can be made in a widening variety of materials.
Belgian metal specialist manufacturing company LayerWise and Xilloc, a tailor-made implant specialist company built the prosthetic jaw, using methods developed by the Research Institute Biomed at Hasselt University, which is also in Belgium.
Ruben Wauthle, LayerWise's medical applications engineer, told the BBC:
"Once we received the 3D digital design, the part was split up automatically into 2D layers and then we sent those cross sections to the printing machine. It used a laser beam to melt successive thin layers of titanium powder together to build the part. This was repeated with each cross section melted to the previous layer. It took 33 layers to build 1mm of height, so you can imagine there were many thousand layers necessary to build this jawbone."
The implant was made out of titanium powder, which was then fused together one layer at a time. A high-precision laser heated the particles without the need for glue. Afterwards, a bioceramic coating was applied to the finished 'printout' of the prosthetic jaw, ensuring that the replacement would be compatible with the patient's body and remove the possibility of rejection.
The entire process took a very short time, from printing the implant to the four hours required in order to fit the prosthetic jaw -- only a fraction of what 'traditional' cosmetic surgery would have entailed.
The patient was able to speak a few hours after the reconstructive effort, and the day after was able to swallow. At 107g, the implant weighs little more than a 'natural' lower jaw, and so far has not caused the patient any complications.
The team of researchers hope these kinds of techniques will become widespread. Being shown the prospect of individual bone formations being printed and tailored to individual patient needs, if proven successful, it is a technique that we may see developed and implemented more widely within medical fields in the near future.