The patient had developed a chronic bone infection and due to the her age reconstructive surgery would have been particularly dangerous, so doctors looked to a tailor-made replacement at the touch of a button.
Belgian metal additive manufacturing company LayerWise used a method developed by the Research Institute Biomed at Hasselt University, also in Belgium, to create the fake jaw.
“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,” Ruben Wauthle, LayerWise’s medical applications engineer, told the BBC.
“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.”
We have seen 3D printer’s traditionally use plastic or resin, and the latest advancements have seen gold and silver being introduced into the market, but LayerWise use powdered titanium printed out in the same method layer by layer. A laser then fuses and moulds the correct particles together while the final print out is given a bioceramic coating that is compatible with the patients’s tissue.
Weighing just 107 grams, the jaw was introduced to the patient only four hours after being printed, with the patient speaking and swallowing within 24 hours – an astonishing statistic considering the lengthy process of traditional reconstructive surgery.
Biomed professor Jules Poukens announced the breakthrough earlier this month on the 2nd February, having successfully conducted the operation in June last year, “doctors and engineers together around the design computer and the operation table: that’s what we call being truly innovative.”
There is no doubt the operation’s success has paved the way for the use of more 3D printed patient parts. “The advantages are that the surgery time decreases because the implants perfectly fit the patients and hospitalisation time also lowers – all reducing medical costs,” said Mr Wauthle.
“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.”
The success of the operation follows a project at the Washington State University where engineers showcased ceramic scaffolds being used to promote the growth of new bone tissue. Following the success of experiments on animals it was suggested it could be used on humans within the next 20 years.
The vision for Mr Wauthle is to print actual organs, a process already being successfully developed by Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Chair and Professor of Urology, and surgeon.
“There are still big biological and chemical issues to be solved,” Wauthle says. “At the moment we use metal powder for printing. 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.”