Cancer patient receives a 3D-printed jaw

The lighter, more natural-looking prosthesis gives him a face he can be comfortable with.

Abigail Watson/Indiana University

If you lose your lower jaw to cancer, you don't have many options for prosthetics. At that size, traditional clay is so heavy and unwieldy that you can only wear it for a few hours at a time. Indiana University's Dr. Travis Bellicchi and team have developed a much better alternative, though. He recently gave tongue cancer patient Shirley Anderson a 3D-printed jaw after losing his natural jaw to the side effects of radiation treatments. The digitally-modeled piece is not only much lighter, but far more natural-looking -- the creators could create more natural borders and account for fine details like skin pores. The result is good enough that Anderson could comfortably wear the prosthesis in public without drawing significant attention.

Crucially, the technique is already paying dividends beyond Anderson. A man who lost an ear to an industrial accident got a natural-looking replacement just 6 weeks later, and there are five other patients who've received 3D-printed prosthetics. There may well be a time in the near future where the technology regularly helps patients restore missing features.