A medical research team from Belgium and the Netherlands has constructed the world's first patient-specific lower jaw titanium implant.
Doctors from Belgian company BIOMED, the medical research unit of Hasselt University, used an MRI machine to scan a copy of the 83-year-old woman's lower jaw jawbone. The company Xilloc, specialised in developing patient-specific implants, then designed a model for the implant from this copy.
LayerWise, a specialised metal-products manufacturer, fed this image through a 3D printing system in which a precision laser beam transformed a fine titanium powder into an implant.
Michael Beerens, BIOMED's Chief Executive (CEO), said he worked through the night to develop the design, and it took just two more days for LayerWise to have the implant model ready.
Although a prosthesis of a jaw could also be manufactured from a mold, this new 3D laser-printing technology is a much faster and cheaper method, said LayerWise Managing Director, Doctor Peter Mercelis.
The implant is also customised, allowing the replacement bone to have exactly the same measurements as the original.
"Technology has the huge advantage that is perfectly suited to create individualised pieces. And you do not need large series of ten-thousands of parts to make it economically feasible and there's a large patient group that could benefit from a personalised implant. Because now the surgeons have to take implants off the shelf and they are only available in a certain number of sizes and they are not tailored to fit the individual patient," Mercelis said.
The implant restored the patient's facial shape and her jaw's full range of motion. Without this technology, surgeons could have repaired the jaw microscopically but such a surgery would take up to 20 hours and the recovery period would have been much longer.
Surgeons say it would have taken at least four months for the patient to recover in hospital, before she would have been able to eat normally.
"She had a very short operation but also we had, at the same time, a reconstruction of the joint was possible. Because if you do a microsurgical procedure, you only reconstruct part of the mandible. In this case which we also have reconstructed part of the joint in one session. That's why she could speak, eat and swallow right after the operation," Doctor Jules Poukens of BIOMED at Hasselt University said.
The patient's name has not been revealed and she has refused all interview requests.
The implant's success stems from titanium's impeccable compatibility with the body, without a risk of the implant being rejected by the body of the patient.
The implant's technology opens other doors in the medical field.
"We could use the same technique, for like, for instance for hip prosthesis or knee prosthesis or elbow prosthesis and also to use this technique for a vascular surgery. I mean to have a new heart valve it could be printed and those printed valves could be co-cultured with cells to have a new heart valve," Professor Ivo Lambrichts of BIOMED at Hasselt University said.
Furthermore, Lambrichts hopes this technology can be used to bond other titanium implants with stem cells, supplying further solutions to surgical roadblocks.
This technology cannot only be used to produce patient-specific implants, but also items such as dental prostheses, industrial products and even jewellery.
LayerWise's implant model has been granted the '2012 Additive Manufacturing Award' by the Additive Manufacturing Network in Belgium.
The jaw implant is one of the first medical innovations to receive this award.
The actual surgery took place in June 2011 but is only now being publicised. Next week, the patient will receive the final step to a complete recovery: her new teeth.