Showing the technology is not just limited to producing physical 3D models of your in-game avatar or other worldly creations – as our look at Mineways delves into; recreating your favourite Minecraft builds into model form – 3D printing continues to astound us in its real-world applications. Now, said to be the first operation of its kind, doctors in the Netherlands have successfully completed an 84-year old woman's jaw transplant by replacing her existing lower jaw - said to be inflicted with chronic bone infection - with a patient-specific, 3D-printed, titanium-based replacement.
The implant - which includes fully articulated joints, cavities to allow muscles to become attached to its surface, and “dedicated features” - was built by specialised metal-parts manufacturer LayerWise after it had received the finalised three-dimensional design. Produced in just a few hours, the process involved breaking down the 3D digital image into single 2D layers, which the printer would then use to gradually 'build' the part layer-by-layer, millimeter-by-millimeter. If you can appreciate the amount of work gone into printing just 1mm of actual jaw height – a sizeable 33 layers of the printer's laser individually melting successively thin layers of titanium powder to match the 2D layer 'map' – then a few hours is pretty good going to say the least. The part, which ended up weighing just 107g (a little over a third heavier than the patient's existing lower jaw), was then given a bioceramic coating ready to be transplanted in an operation lasting just four hours – reported to be just a fifth of the time more traditional reconstructive surgery would take.
Even more astounding was the quick recovery time for the 84-year old woman whose age was deemed to risky for reconstructive surgery - just a day later she was speaking and was able to swallow again. The success of the operation sheds an optimistic light on the benefits of 3D printing techniques being used much more regularly in health care. Researchers have already been testing the viability of using a 'bone-like' material produced by a 3D printer to help repair bone fractures, while bio-printing start-up Organovo has been developing a printing technique which uses human cells to create functional, living tissue and organs. The possibilities are seemingly endless.