Photo Credit: organprinter
So we’ve all definitely heard the hype surrounding the 3D printing technology. Yes, it’s been around for a while, but it’s now taking off like a whirlwind – with everything from 3D remote control aeroplanes to opening a whole new range of sculptural artistry – and it seems like the Star Trek replicators are not so far fetched after all.
Last year, orthopaedic specialists were already delving into the world of 3D printing to see how it might benefit the medical community. Tests on animals showed that 3D printed bone scaffolds could be attached to assist in bone growth repairs – a technology they hope to make viable for humans within the next two decades.
However, what they didn’t realize was that doctors in the Netherlands were way ahead of them; they just hadn’t talked about it yet.
The patient was an elderly woman of 83 years who had developed a chronic bone infection in her lower jaw. Reconstructive surgery would be risky (and expensive) at her age so they decided to try something new – an operation that is literally the first of its kind.
They crafted a brand new jaw for her, made from titanium powder fused in a 3D printer. The complex body part comes complete with articulated joints, cavities to promote muscle attachment, and grooves to direct regrowth of nerves and veins. It will also be equipped with a specially made dental bridge into which false teeth can be screwed into holes. That will happen later this month during a follow-up surgery.
The operation was done in June last year, but has only recently been publicized – probably because they decided to make sure it actually worked first!
And work it did: our lovely old granny got to walk away from the hospital only four days after a surgery that only took four hours – a fifth of the time it would have taken to do a traditional reconstructive surgery. The day after the surgery the woman was already able to swallow with her new mouth!
The future for 3D printing in medicine looks bright. The slashing of operation and subsequent hospitalisation time reduces medical costs so dramatically that it’s bound to make hospitals around the world perk up and drive forward the research.
The company that produced the machinery, LayerWise, believes that this application is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s perfectly plausible to imagine that patient-specific organs can be printed, ready for transplant in the matter of hours.
Of course, the world where hearts will no longer need to be stored in boxes and flown across the country to be received by the next patient on the waiting list is still some way off. I’m not sure a tin-man’s (or titanium-man’s) heart would really work so well in an actual human body.
Working out all the biological and chemical issues – namely how to use organic material as the ‘ink’ in the 3D printer – is something that’s definitely going to take some time. Most likely it will only be a reality outside of our lifetimes, but who knows – I’m pretty sure a few decades ago they would have thought the idea of whipping up a fully functioning jaw bone out of titanium powder would have seemed ridiculously far off as well.
You never know what those orthopaedists will pull out of their bony brains next!