Turtle gets new 3D printed jaw: How 3D is changing veterinary care

A Turkish turtle just received a new 3D printed jaw that will allow it to eat on its own again. What else will 3D printing technology allow veterinarians to do?

Btech Innovation
The loggerhead turtle's bionic jaw was designed by biotechnology company Btech Innovation, which creates custom implants for patients.

When a sea turtle's jaw was injured in a boating collision off the coast of Turkey, it was unlikely that it would ever be able to eat on its own again, much less return to the wild.

However, due to a collaboration between the biotechnology company BTech Innovation and Pamukkale University's Sea Turtle Research, Rescue, and Rehabilitation Centre, the turtle has been outfitted with a 3D printed prosthetic jaw.

While 3D printers have been used to create prosthetic limbs for injured pets, this may be the first 3D jaw produced for a wild species. It also underscores a shift in veterinary care as the technology for 3D printing becomes cheap enough to make manufacturing prosthetic limbs for animals economically feasible. While the printer and software cost about $13,000, the models themselves cost only a few dollars.

When the AKUT Arama Kurtarma Derneği research team found the loggerhead sea turtle, which is classified as an endangered species, it had nearly 60 percent of its jaw bone missing.

3D printing technology uses additive design to create models out of plastic, metal, ceramic, and even living cells. BTech Innovation spent several months analyzing CT scans with computer assisted design software to create a model of the turtle’s beak. Then, they used a 3D printer to build a replacement jaw in medical-grade titanium.

Once the turtle has fully recovered, the team will release it back into the ocean.

“Operation was successful and turtle is doing ok,” according to a Dekamer Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre press release. “He is able to move his lower jaw. Now we are waiting for functional attachment of soft tissue to prosthesis. We hope this promising technology will help wild animals for recovering from their disabilities and help them return to the wild in the future.”

While this surgery was the first of its kind, 3D printing technology has been around since the 1980s.

“We’ve only seen it emerge into clinical practice in the last few years, as many of the patents on this technology are expiring and the marketplace is becoming more competitive as a result,” said Steven Lucero, mechanical engineer and manager of the Translating Engineering Advances to Medicine Prototyping Facility at the University of California-Davis. “Consequently, we’re finally getting to see the great benefits that can come from this technology.”

A student at Colorado Technical University designed a 3D printed shell for a tortoise that suffered from pyramiding, a condition that, due to poor nutrition, cause her shell to develop pyramid-like growths, holes and broken parts. However, the biodegradable corn-based plastic shell cap will protect the tortoise until its shell heals.

The technology has allowed dogs, cats, and even ducks with deformed or injured legs to run again with a variety of different prosthetic leg, wheel, and webbed foot designs. 

3D models also have helped surgeons to design complicated procedures and better analyze injuries, and medical students have used the models for practice and reference. 

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