When I first read that Prof. Jules Poukens announced 3D printing could be just the start of a bionic revolution right after implanting the world's first 3D-printed jawbone, I couldn't help but think of the The Six Million Dollar Man, a TV series based on the medical thriller Cyborg by Martin Caidin, first published in 1972, and its female version, The Bionic Woman. I was struck by how close we are to achieving what was once the realm of science fiction.
If you are not familiar with these classics, here is a brief summary: In The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) was an astronaut. After an accident, he was found barely alive. In the intro, the voiceover says: "We can rebuild him, we have the technology, we have the capability to make the world's first bionic man." Indeed, they did. They replaced his right arm, left eye, and both legs with bionic implants. The Bionic Woman was Austin’s girlfriend. Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), a tennis pro, was critically injured after a parachute accident. The same team who created the bionic man replaced Jamie’s right arm, right ear, and both legs with bionic limbs.
Now, back to reality, or back to when science and technology in fiction meets science and technology in the real world. Some research, experimentation, and a few decades after the bionic implants amazed television viewers, Prof. Jules Poukens, a craniomaxillofacial surgeon at University Hospital Maastricht in the Netherlands, and his team of surgeons and research engineers from Belgium and the Netherlands, successfully replaced an elderly patient's diseased jawbone with a prosthetic generated by 3D printing.
The 83-year-old patient's original jaw was severely infected. Prof. Poukens's team created a 3D-printed replica of the woman's jawbone made from powdered titanium. In an operation that lasted four hours, the implant was inserted, replacing the original jawbone. Thanks to this new application of 3D technology, the woman left the hospital after three days, having recovered breathing, speech, chewing, sensation, and even the shape of her face was restored. Despite the fact that this first 3D-printed jawbone implant took place last June, it was not announced until February of this year.
Prof. Poukens’s team has also carried out five smaller operations repairing skull defects using 3D imprints. The next step in the application of this technology is larger bones, stronger than the ones replaced, and blending with living cells. This will be a revolutionary advancement in bone and organ transplant, ending with the endless waiting lists, from which 90 percent of the patients are waiting for a kidney donor, saving more human lives. The new organs would be created from the patient's own tissue rather than from donated organs. This will solve the problem of rejection. A patient’s failed organ will be used as scaffold for the new organ, filling it with new tissue. This could also solve the challenge of building blood vessels, which remains a problem in tissue engineering.
During a TED presentation, Dr. Anthony Atala from Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine showed a 3D-printed human kidney, printed on stage. These printed organs are in an early stage of experimentation. However, they are expected to aid the organ donation shortage one day.
Healthcare CIOs shouldn't run out and buy 3D printers just yet. There's more work to do. But you're going to find that you need to make room somewhere for them soon, and while you're at it, make room for all of the patients who will flood your hospital looking to be rebuilt better and stronger than before.