Cancer Survivor Gets 3D-Printed Jaw

A new process is faster and more flexible than traditional prosthetic sculpting methods.

A novel process developed at Indiana University uses 3D modeling and printing to produce remarkably lifelike facial prosthetics faster than traditional methods. The showcase patient for the process is Shirley Anderson, who was first diagnosed with cancer on his tongue in 1998.

Radiation treatments destroyed Anderson’s Adam’s apple and jaw, and multiple attempts at reconstructive surgery failed. For years, Anderson wore a surgical mask in public to conceal his badly scarred face.

In 2012, Anderson began working with Dr. Travis Bellicchi, a maxillofacial prosthodontics resident at the IU school of dentistry. Anderson’s prosthesis would be the largest ever produced at the school, and Bellichi quickly found that conventional methods produced a prosthetic that was too heavy and uncomfortable.

So Bellichi began working with students at Indiana University’s Media Arts and Sciences program—a program generally focused on the entertainment industry—to find a new solution. Anderson’s face was digitally scanned, itself a big improvement over the plaster-casting technique previously used. Then, the digital sculpting software Zbrush was used to model a prosthetic jaw. Zbrush proved particularly adept at creating the narrow feathered edges of the prosthetic, which help it sit flush with a patient’s own skin, making it much more lifelike.

Molds based on the sculpt were then printed using a Formlabs desktop 3D printer. As the above photo shows, the resulting prosthesis is remarkably—you might even say uncannily—lifelike. When asked for his reaction to the prosthesis, Anderson described it—using the whiteboard through which he communicates —as “true amazement.”

3D printing has quickly become a boon to prosthetics, from hands to legs, all of which require degrees of customization that are difficult or expensive to achieve by other means. Facial prosthetics in particular are very labor intensive, and requiring meticulous hand-sculpting for each patient.

The process used to produce Anderson’s prosthesis is much faster than traditional methods, producing prostheses in as little as six weeks. According to researchers, six other patients have already benefited from the process, which has been dubbed the Shirley Technique.