3D Printer gives woman brand new Jawbone

Don’t you just love it when random technology advances non-technocratic fields? I do, which is why I got excited when I heard that they used a 3D printer to create an 83-year-old Belgian woman’s jawbone replacement.

After the woman’s jaw was infected, and effectively ruined by osteomyelitis, technicians at the University of Hasselt in Belgium built her a new one with their highly-advanced 3D printer. The team loaded the 3D printer with finely-ground titanium powder, and formed a jawbone to her specifications; a jawbone as good as the woman’s original. 3D-printed bone-replacement parts like this one are created by feeding information from MRIs and X-Rays into high-caliber 3D printing machines.

“This is a world premiere, the first time a patient specific implant has replaced the entire lower jaw,” says Jules Poukens, a lead researcher at the University of Hasselt. “It’s a cautious, but firm step.”

The experimental bone replacement project expanded on a similar operation in Finland in 2008 – where they replaced a man’s natural jawbone with a 3D-printed titanium partial upper jawbone.

The Belgian woman’s surgery took just 4 hours to completely replace her jaw, after which she regained near-full use of her face – thanks to a bio-compatible ceramic layer, muscular attachments and detailed shaping that allows mandibular nerves to pass through the jawbone. The jawbone even had places carved out for cavities and dimples.

“Shortly after waking up from the anesthetic the patient spoke a few words, and the day after was able to speak and swallow normally again,” says Poukens.

The technology gets even cooler than simply using 3D printers to print bone replacements though. The titanium scaffolding was marinated in stem cells (guess that technology isn’t coming to America any time soon).

Forgive my geeky side, but I am pretty sure this technology and surgery means that an 83-year-old Belgian woman is now officially The Terminator, replacing the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger as the world’s most bad-ass cyborg. Next step: Adamantium body parts to create real-world Wolverines.

The bone-replacement technology is already being investigated for use in other body part replacements, including: fingers, thumbs, dental implants, (other) facial reconstruction and spine-bone implants.

The team hopes that the technology can be used in the future to print skin grafts and build-up entire organs (by layering cells onto a 3D-printed organ frame) since 3D printers can now layer materials that are only micrometers thick.

“It’s only the start” says project-funder Layerwise’s managing director Peter Mercelis.

Patient specific implants can potentially be applied on a much wider scale than transplantation of human bone structures.