Researchers at the University of Salamanca in Spain are exploring the potential for inexpensive custom-made 3D printed implants to be used on patients with severe diseases, injuries or defects affecting the maxillofacial region (jaws and face) who cannot receive regular implants due to advanced bone loss. In the long term, they foresee 3D printed pieces made from special biomaterials that actually encourage bone regeneration within the patient. Another application could be custom dental implants designed specifically for patients who have a significant amount of bone loss in the jaw area.
For patients with severe bone loss, including in the maxillofacial region which includes the head, neck face, jaw and hard and soft tissues in the mouth, a current solution is to remove bone from another part of the body, such as the hip. According to Montero, however, this is a high-risk surgery with increased risk of patient mortality. “We are committed to creating an intervention to place an ad hoc rigid piece that will promote bone regeneration in the shape that we need during the implant surgery,” said Javier Montero, one of the researchers. 3D printing technologies have also provided some similar solutions, such as a Russian-developed ‘bio-cement’ that uses animal bones to regenerated fractured human bones, and more recently K2M’s Lamellar Titanium Technology, which can encourage bone growth in spinal implants, however the Spanish researchers are focusing specifically on solutions for maxillofacial sugeries, which until now has not been seen.
According to researchers from the University’s Dental Clinic within the Faculty of Medicine, the current challenge is to find materials that will disappear over time into the patient’s body as the bone regenerates itself. Since materials such as collagen, which is commonly used to dentistry, becomes ‘denatured’ during the high-temperature heating process of 3D printing, it is not suitable. Instead, they are investigaging other materials, such as PLA or PGA (polyglycolic acid).
“We are at an early stage,” Montero, “but in the future we could design exactly what each patient needs.” Another major goal of the project is to develop affordable alternatives to existing solutions, such as titanium implants designed for cancer patients. The idea is to “apply a cheap technology to solve complex problems.”
Currently, the Spanish researchers are focusing on existing literature to find suitable materials before they move into biocompatibility tests and eventually in vitro testing on animals. They are also seeking funding to help speed up and ensure the research process.
Though still in such early phases, at the rate that technology advances today, it is quite possible that such a medical breakthrough could happen in the very near future and be used to greatly improve—if not save—the lives of patients. Each advance in medical applications for 3D printing brings us closer and closer to a future where even severe conditions or high-risk surgeries will be more successful than ever before.