When discussing medical 3D printing applications, we immediately think about those revolutionary new procedures involving 3D printed implants and surgical models. Just last week, 3D bioprinting company Organovo announced plans for implantable 3D printed human liver tissue that can be directly transplanted into patients. But did you know that 3D printing can also fundamentally change the way existing, conventional procedures take place? This is again proven by a team of Singapore researchers, who are developing a 3D printed scaffold in which new bone material is ‘grown’ to replace extracted teeth. While the results are the same, this procedure is far less invasive or costly than painful bone grafting procedures.
This remarkable breakthrough is being pioneered by a research collaboration featuring the National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS) and Nanyang Technological University. The first of its kind in terms of design and material, this 3D printed scaffold has been under development for five years – and has already been successfully tested on seven patients. A second trial, featuring 132 patients will take place over the next three years or so.
While patients will doubtlessly be very happy to minimize the number of painful dental surgeries, this breakthrough is especially welcome because the medical sector as a whole is in dire need of more efficient and less costly procedures. It’s all related to a significant demographic shift that is taking place in industrialized societies, where people are living much longer and the medical sector is faced with skyrocketing numbers of old-age diseases and complications. Just think about the growing demand for dental implants, hip replacements and cartilage restoration procedures. These changing demands bring gigantic financial burdens to the table, and 3D printing could play a key role in minimizing the likelihood of errors and complications, while decreasing implant costs and the need for expensive rehabilitation.
This is perfectly illustrated by this fantastic innovation from Singapore, a country that is also faced with an aging population riddled with tooth decay and gum diseases. While dental implants can be made from a variety of materials, a patient’s own bone is the best material due to its biocompatibility. Unfortunately, this requires a painful procedure during which the bone is ‘shaved’ off other parts of the body. But if that bone material is simply grown into a laboratory from extracted stem cells, the need for those costly and invasive surgeries disappears entirely.
As NDCS deputy director of research and education Dr. Goh Bee Tin explained, their 3D printed scaffold is a porous structure made from a synthetic material that traps osteoblasts in empty tooth sockets and encourages cone growth. “Bone substitutes take a long time to be absorbed by the body,” said Dr. Goh. “In comparison, the scaffold is absorbed fully and much faster by the body, and is cheaper to make.”
It’s a material breakthrough that was impossible without 3D imaging and 3D printing technology, which NDCS had already been using for corrective jaw surgeries over the past two years. They are already 3D printing plastic templates of patient jaws post-surgery, which are used as operation guides. They are also performing mock surgeries on 3D printed skull models.
In that particular application, 3D printing has already made reduced surgery times and reduced the likelihood of complications. “The models make the surgery more precise… surgeons have a clearer idea of what they should do and what vital anatomy to avoid,” said Dr Chew Ming Tak, senior consultant at the department of orthodontics at NDCS. More than 70 surgeries relying on 3D printing took place in 2015, and also helped to educate patients about the coming operation. “It was quite exciting to see what I would look like after surgery and I felt safer,” Priscilla Chan, a 22-year-old student who underwent one of these surgeries, recalls. At the same time, it inspired subsequent exploration of 3D printing opportunities.
This revolutionary 3D printed scaffolding has already been patented, and will undergo extensive testing over the coming years. NDCS is currently working with artificial bone scaffold company Osteopore International to fabricate it on a larger scale. If successful, we could all become a bit less afraid of dentists in the near future.