3d printed jaw


Saving Face with a 3D Printed Jaw

In the medical industry, rapid prototyping and 3D printing services are bringing about some life changing solutions that are taking the modern world by storm. Rapid prototyping and 3D printing have quickly become a blessing for the prosthetic industries- from artificial limbs to dental implants- you name it. All these prosthetics require the kind of sophisticated customization that is otherwise difficult to accomplish with the help of traditional manufacturing methods. Rapid prototyping hence appears to be the savior for all things custom as patient specific scans can be translated into actual implants for them. In particular, prosthetics for the face are very laborious and need meticulously hand sculpted precision for every patient’s mouth structure.


Surgeons at Indiana University School of dentistry have employed rapid prototyping and 3D printing techniques in order to make an artificial jaw for a cancer surviving patient. Travis Bellicchi pioneered this technology who happens to be a resident at the Indiana University dentistry school, having transformed the life of patient Shirley Anderson.


The First Ever 3D Prosthetic Jaw


The first ever 3D printed jaw transplant was done back in 2012, and it has come a long way since then. Back in the day, the 3D printer produced a lower jaw that was fitted into the mouth of an eighty three year old patient. This was the first ever operation of this kind, carried out in Netherlands in June 2012. This very early jaw implant was created out of powdered titanium which was heated and fused with the help of a laser, layer by layer like today’s 3D printing and rapid prototyping is done. According to the technicians it was said that the success of the operation opened new doors for the use of more patient specific parts created with rapid prototyping. It was due to this groundbreaking surgery that there was a research followed by it at the Hasselt University Biomedical Research Institute in Belgium. LayerWise, a manufacturer of metal parts based in Belgium created the implant for the jawbone. Since this surgery, rapid prototyping of jawbones have come a long way. The recent success is the conclusive proof of that.


Shirley Anderson’s New Jaw


Today, a new process has been developed which has been proven to be more flexible and speedier than the traditional methods for prosthetic sculpting. This novel process was developed by Indiana University. The researchers used 3D modeling and printing to create amazingly life like, close to real facial prosthetic jaws in a greater speed than the traditionally used methods. Shirley Anderson was the patient under the research team who needed a jaw replacement followed by being diagnosed with tongue cancer back in 1998. Shirley Anderson’s jaw and Adam’s apple were severely damaged due to the extensive radiation therapies for cancer. The multiple reconstructive surgery attempts on the patient failed throughout the years. Shirley had to wear a surgical mask for years in public in order to conceal his badly disfigured face.


Dr. Travis Bellicchi took Shirley Anderson under his wing in 2012. Bellicchi is a resident maxillofacial prosthodontic specialist at the school of dentistry, Indiana University. Shirley’s prosthetic jaws happen to be the largest ones ever to be produced at the Indiana University school of dentistry, hence Dr. Bellicchi had to quickly devise a method different from the conventional ones to be producing a prosthetic jaw, as traditional methods only yielded uncomfortable and heavy jaws for patients.


Joining forces with the students of Media Arts and Sciences program, Indiana University, Dr. Bellicchi started looking for the new solution. Anderson’s face was put under digital scanning devices- which itself is a huge improvement over the usual plaster cast techniques used for markings. After this step, Zbrush- digital software for sculpting was employed for modeling a prosthetic jaw. Zbrush was hugely adept at producing the feathered, narrow edges of the prosthetic jaw. This feature helps the jaw to sit flush with the own skin of the patient, making the overall feel less artificial and more closer to original. Molds made through rapid prototyping based on the sculpted files were then 3D printed by using the desktop 3D printer by Formlabs. As shown in the photo, the end result turned out to be what many enthusiasts term as eerily and remarkably lifelike for a prosthetic jaw. When asked how Anderson felt at the new prosthetic jaw he was fitted with, the patient described it with the help of the whiteboard through which he essentially speaks. The words he wrote were ‘true amazement’.


Previously though, Anderson’s doctors tried to remove some of his chest muscles in order to reconstruct the lower half of the face without any success. Even Dr. Bellicchi also tried to create an artificial jaw out of clay, which proved to be too heavy and large. The clay jaw could only be worn temporarily, about a few hours at a stretch. This made Anderson hide his face behind a heavy surgical mask, rendering him unable to eat any solid food. Hence in order to make the 3D printed jaw much lighter, Dr. Bellicchi chose silicone. His surgical team chose rapid prototyping to 3D print a mould of Anderson’s facial structure, used for making the final jaw structure. The new jaw was even painted by artists in order to match it precisely with the skin color of the patient.


According to Dr. Bellicchi, the traditional processes for mould making, sculpting, aesthetic characterization and impression can be a trying task. The doctor realized that there should be a digital solution to the problem, and hence his resorting to rapid prototyping. Today, not only can the patient wear the new jaw for much longer, it happens to be much lighter, comfortable and breathable.


This revolutionary method has by far been used on six more patients which includes a man receiving a new 3D printed ear in just about six weeks. Rapid prototyping is clearly making a resounding difference in people’s lives and will continue to for many years to come. It’s really wonderful watching this innovative technology evolve and grow.




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