Need a new jaw? Just print one up

Molly Wood Feb 21, 2012

The patient had a severely infected jaw and it had gotten so bad it needed to be replaced. There’s a standard protocol for replacing jaws where part of a bone is extracted from the patient, often in the lower leg, and then crafted into a workable jaw. It’s an intensive process — the new jaw installation alone takes around 20 hours.

But this particular patient was 83 years old and her body was simply not equipped to handle that kind of surgery. And she still needed that new jaw. So Dr. Jules Poukens tried a different approach: 3D printing. It’s a relatively new technology that has been making great strides recently. Fundamentally, it’s just like regular printing except instead of an image, you make an object. In this case, Dr. Poukens worked with a 3D printing company to manufacture a new jaw for the patient out of titanium.

“It’s a high-energy laser beam that heats small particles of titanium,” Dr. Poukens says, “and they are molded together layer by layer, and you end up with the final implant in the right shape and the right design.”

The surgery to install the jaw was not only successful, it was comparatively quick, taking four hours instead of 20. “She’s doing very well,” says Poukens. “Actually, the day after, the patient was already very awake, and she could already eat, speak and talk almost normally.”

Obviously this is great news for the patient. The jaw will easily last her the rest of her life, Poukens says. But it’s also intriguing for the rest of the medical field. If we can manufacture a jaw and successfully implant it in a patient, what else can be done?

Dr. Poukens sees possibilities for cosmetic medical work. “I think this has a great potential also for implants,” he says, “when you want to reconstruct or change your face or the form of your face, because you can print those kind of implants, and they keep the shape you designed.”

Put simply, you’d be able to print off a new face and then attach it to your skull. “The material that is used is a titanium alloy,” says Poukens, “same as is used for instance for hip prosthesis and so they’re accepted by the body. Also we use the coating, it was an artificial bone coating, so the body is more likely to accept the implant.”

At a TED Conference talk not long ago, Dr. Anthony Atala demonstrated an approach to 3D printing that could lead to the printing of a human kidney. So it’s possible, if the technology really works like some people think it will, that instead of finding organ donors or harvesting your own body, you can just get something printed and installed.

Poukens says, “I think the future will be in organ printing. For instance, a bone or part of the bone is an organ, and the future will be to incorporate, say, a mineral print scaffold and mix that together with the cells of patient to stimulate bone formation, and maybe you can even print vessels from a patient’s tissue and then you have a viable bone transplant, not out of patient but out of a printer.”

Also in this program, video games! Which kind of feel a bit insignificant given the discussion we just had but no matter. The PlayStation Vita is a new handheld video game console from Sony that comes out tomorrow. It’s more expensive than the rival Nintendo 3DS, but according to our video game guy Ben Kuchera, it really delivers. He says, “The thing that’s important about this system is it gives you very good games in a portable footprint, but it doesn’t force you to deal with any of the compromises we’re used to from portable gaming. If you look at the 3DS, the screen is small, and the Vita screen is huge. If you look at your iPhone, it’s all touchscreen; you can’t play an action game because there are no buttons. With the Vita, you have two analog sticks, you have four face buttons and two shoulder buttons as well as that wonderful touchscreen in front just like our iPad or your iPhone, and a bonus touch panel in the rear of the system, so you can actually manipulate things by touching the back of the system without covering the screen with your hands. It’s just an amazing array of ways to interact with these games.”

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