3D printing is one of the most interesting technologies of our time, even if people do sometimes go overboard with their excitement about it - we are still a long way off having machines in our own homes that will just print us out a new phone on demand, but it is genuinely amazing that we can now upload a 3D file to a company that specialises in this stuff, and then pay to get it printed in plastic, ceramic or any of a range of different metals. Printing in this case usually means building up the piece layer by layer either by extruding the material from a tube, or some variant on selective laser sintering, which fuses fine powders into solid shapes using one or more lasers.
Medical applications are among the most fascinating uses for this technology. There has been a good deal of talk about printing whole organs in 3D, using cells taken from a patient's own body and grown in culture before spraying them into the shape of the organ in question. There have also been several successful dental implants and replacements of small bones with printed metal.
Now an 83-year-old woman suffering from chronic osteomyelitis has had an entire new jawbone created out of titanium. Using an MRI scan of her existing, badly deteriorated jaw, a metal replacement was created in exactly the right shape, allowing places for muscles to adhere and nerves to pass through. The titanium was coated with a kind of ceramic that the human body tolerates in implants, and was then successfully implanted by surgeons in the space of less than four hours - five times quicker than traditional reconstructive surgery would have been.
The patient was reportedly able to talk and swallow normally the day after the surgery. The team responsible for the operation at the Biomedical Research Institute at Hasselt University in Belgium, and the private company LayerWise which printed the jaw, are said to be extremely happy with the success of the operation, and excited about what this technology might hold for the future.