Skip to Content

A 3-D Printed Jawbone

Last June, an 83-year-old woman received an unusual implant.
February 8, 2012

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.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

One insider says the company’s current staffing isn’t able to sustain the platform.

Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve.

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not

Elon said no thanks to using his mega-constellation for navigation. Researchers went ahead anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.