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US military utilising 3D printing to deliver dental care on and off battlefield

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The US military is already using 3D printing to provide medical services to its soldiers and veterans around the world. (Image: Olga_Shestakova/Shutterstock and Sotnikov Misha/Shutterstock).

SAN DIEGO, US: 3D printing is a powerful technology that the military has begun to apply across the board. Military physicians are now utilising the technology in the hopes of making specialised dental care accessible for soldiers anywhere in the world.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has established the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) 3D Printing Network in order to coordinate 3D printing initiatives for medical care for the more than 30 Veterans Health Administration facilities across America. This means that any dentist or doctor in the system has access to files for printing medical models, custom prostheses and dental tools.

Military physicians made headlines last year when they used 3D-printed teeth in the newly reconstructed jaw of Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jaden Murry at the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD). The team who performed the surgery removed a tumour and the affected portion of the jaw, then used part of Murry’s fibula to replace the missing bone. The procedure and the use of the 3D-printed teeth have enabled Murry to make a quick recovery, and he has regained the ability to speak and eat normally.

Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jaden Murry was the recipient of a new lower jaw and 3D printed teeth after having a dangerous tumour removed by surgeons with the Veterans Health Administration. (Image: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg)

In a Department of Defense press release, Navy Lieutenant Commander Dr Daniel Hammer said, “To see him swallowing, speaking, walking and not using a tracheostomy tube one week post-surgery was a huge victory.”

3D printing also means increased patient safety. Dr Hammer said: “We are able to obtain 3D imaging of the facial skeleton with increased accuracy and decreased radiation dose. These [digital] impressions are more accurate and do not require additional laboratory work. If a physical model is needed, we’re able to print the scan on our 3D printers.”

The increase in efficiency provides better options for treatment, according to Navy Commander Dr Mike Anderson, a maxillofacial prosthodontist also based at NMCSD. “We’re able to combine numerous surgical procedures that were once split up over years of treatment,” he said in a further press release. “The ability to immediately transfer that data to our imaging software to discuss and plan cases with our team is unbelievably more accurate, consistent and predictable than traditional methods,” he continued.

Dr Anderson explained how that same imaging empowered his patients to ask more questions and better understand the nature of their individual procedures, thus improving their postoperative experience. Dr Hammer agreed. He explained: “Whether our patients have cancer, trauma, or benign tumours, our goal is for patients to awaken from surgery with not only the pathology removed and a new craniofacial reconstruction, but to also have a full complement of implant-retained prosthetic teeth for immediate improvement of speech, swallowing, function, and overall quality of life.”

Dr Beth Ripley, director of the VHA 3D Printing Network, explained in a video how, through the network’s partnership with Dr James Hoying, partner and chief scientist at Advanced Solutions Life Sciences, advances have been made with the BioAssemblyBot. “It’s a printer that can print anything that can come through a syringe. And that could be cells or collagen—the patient’s own cells,” said Dr Ripley. Dr Hoying clarified the process, saying: “We essentially take the basic components of bone. These are ground down into a powder and then reconstituted with other elements in order to create what is almost like a bone paste.”

In a VHA Talks series video, Dr Ripley referred to a type of surgery similar to the one performed on Murry and further outlined the goals for 3D printing within the military. She explained that in the future there would be faster surgeries without the need to harvest bone from other parts of the patient’s body, as is presently done in jaw reconstruction cases. “Well, now we have a bio-printer. We can take some [fat cells], we can take some bone cells, and remember we have the blueprint for your mandible. So, we know what the shape is, and we can start working on taking those cells, mixing them together and getting them to grow, with the idea that eventually we will be able to replace that piece of mandible with a living, growing bone that will be incorporated into your body and become part of you.”

The main goal is for the military to be able to provide bio-tailored 3D-printed body parts for soldiers and veterans around the world, slashing development and build times and ensuring that the body parts are exactly what the patient needs, down to the cellular level.

A statement from the VHA Innovation Ecosystem confirmed this plan, highlighting the objective of using advanced manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing, injection moulding, vacuum forming and laser machining, to help improve the supply and specialised use of medical devices. The organisation has three US Food and Drug Administration-registered Advanced Manufacturing Hubs at present that are capable of printing products to match the needs of individual veterans.

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