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Doctors turn to 3-D printing to give cancer survivor a new jaw

New face for cancer survivor thanks to 3-D printing technology
WATCH: An Indiana man lost part of his jaw to an aggressive form of cancer. When traditional surgery didn't work, doctors turned to 3-D printing technology. Mike Drolet reports.

Shirley Anderson won his battle with an aggressive form of cancer, but it came at a price. Doctors eventually had to remove the 68-year-old’s mandible (lower jaw) and Adam’s apple, leaving him without a chin. But thanks to 3-D printing technology, Anderson has a reason to smile again.

The Indiana man was first diagnosed with tongue cancer in 1997. He thought he had beaten it, but 15 years later it came back with a vengeance.

To breathe, they gave the 68-year-old a tracheotomy. To eat, they put a tube in his stomach. And when he left the house he had to wear a mask to cover up the holes left by the surgery.

“It’s kinda been one bad thing after another,” said his wife Della Anderson.

Doctors tried to rebuild his jaw using traditional techniques, but nothing worked very well.

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That’s when Dr. Travis Bellichi of Indiana University suggested something that’s never been done before — using a 3-D printer to rebuild his jaw.

READ MORE: 3-D-printed vertebrae implanted in man’s spine a world first in cancer treatment

“I knew there was a need for a digital solution,” he said.

He enlisted the help of experts from the university’s design and engineering school, who jumped at the chance to be part of the groundbreaking team.

“Travis and his colleagues are the first people in white coats to ever enter this space,” said School of Informatics and Computing student Cade Jacobs. “It was half awe, half frustration that they’d been doing it wrong for so long.”

Formlabs, the 3-D printing technology company Bellichi’s team worked with, is now calling successful effort the “Shirley technique“.

READ MORE: 3 boys saved by customized airway tube made on 3-D printer

The medical community is seemingly finding more uses for 3-D printing every day. Prosthetics are a natural fit, but the same doctors who built Anderson’s jaw are now building ears for other patients.

And a Toronto professor recently led a team in Uganda to build the world’s first functional 3-D printed leg socket.

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“What we’re trying to do is basically use consumer tech to help meet this prosthetic need,” said project lead Matt Ratto.

The Canadian team is working with Ugandan prosthetists to make limbs more affordable and accessible. What once took at least five days to fabricate now takes a fraction of the time.