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I’ll set aside, for the moment, the question of whether 3-D printing can revolutionize manufacturing–a topic that Christopher Mims and Tim Maly have already taken up quite effectively in these web pages–and instead point my finger again to one incontrovertible fact: that the technology is yielding incredibly interesting applications. The latest? An 83-year-old Dutch woman has received a 3-D printed lower jaw.

This happened back in June, but was only announced now; the University of Hasselt in Belgium calls it (somewhat grandiosely) “a world première.” In June, the woman presented with a terrible infection of the lower jaw, or mandible, forcing doctors to surgically remove it. Traditionally, such a patient would simply have to endure life without a proper mandible, or perhaps submit to “complex microsurgical reconstruction” (more or less out of the question for an 83-year-old). And so her team of doctors decided it was time to try something new: a 3-D printed implant.

The implant was a coproduction of sorts, involving researchers from Hasselt, several other colleges, a Dutch company called Xilloc Medical (which handled the 3-D design), and another one called LayerWise (which managed the production).

The implant took just a few hours to print, according to the BBC, with a laser beam melting thin layers of titanium powder, one on top of the other. Thousands of layers were necessary to build the jawbone (33 layers translate to about 1 mm of height). The printed jaw then got a bioceramic coating, and was surgically attached to the woman in about four hours. Old-school reconstructive surgery would have taken 20 hours.

After just a day, the woman was talking and swallowing, and she was able to leave the hospital after four days. Her new jaw weighed about a third heavier than her old one, said the doctors, though they claim that won’t be too difficult to adjust to. Further surgery is planned to remove healing implants and to insert screw-in teeth.

A considerable amount of big talk accompanied the announcement–though admittedly, it seems that much of it was earned. The Hasselt surgeon who performed the operation, Jules Poukens, likened it to the first steps on the moon. “Doctors and engineers together around the design computer and the operation table: that’s what we call being truly innovative,” he also said.

This team was not the first to envision potentially transformative effects of 3-D printing on medicine. Surgeon Anthony Atala recently gave a TED talk on “printing a human kidney.” He’s already made some early prototypes.

But Ruben Wauthle, the medical applications engineer of LayerWise, cautioned to the BBC that we weren’t ready to print biomaterial just yet. “To print organic tissue and bone you would need organic material as your ‘ink,’” he said. “Technically it could be possible - but there is still a long way to go before we’re there.”

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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