Is 3D printing the future of modern dentistry?

The world of modern dentistry is in a constant state of advancement, a trend that looks set to continue. 

Whether it's the innovative design of near-invisible teeth aligners, or further ingenious ways in which the ergonomics of the humble toothbrush can be improved, the dental industry continues to surge forward.

One way in which dental innovations are taking their lead from the world of technology is through 3D printing. This ground breaking procedure allows actual, physical objects to be printed in three dimensions. How? Well, a 3D printer very rapidly lays down ream upon ream of material - usually plastic - until the shape emerges.

Print for progress

The dental world has been quick to harness this technology, as the International and American Associations for Dental Research (IADR/AADR) introduced the first ever application of a 3D-printed scaffold to aid periodontal tissue engineering.

Additionally, a review of 3D printing for oral and craniofacial tissue engineering was also put forth in the Journal of Dental Research. A team of seven dental researchers assembled the case report, named '3D Printed Bioresorbable Scaffold for Periodontal Repair.' 

The dental academics detail how a patient, suffering with serious periodontal tissue loss, was treated using the new technique. The sizeable periodontal osseous lesion was partly treated with the aid of a 3D-printed polymer scaffold, preserving the dentition.

"We were concerned because this was the first time a scaffold would be fabricated using bioengineering as well as three-dimensional printing, which is relatively new in dentistry and periodontics," Dr. William Giannobile, chair of the Department of Periodontics and Oral Medicine at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, told the Journal of Dental Research. 

However, the operation wasn't wholly successful from a long-term point of view. Though the treated area held out for an entire year, during the 13th month, it collapsed. From a medical point of view, this constitutes a failure, but those that led the experiment feel that with further advances of the technology, it's an option worth pursuing.

The power of print

The researchers took heart from the fact that for 12 months, the affected area was in excellent condition and a good state of healing. Though it isn't yet known what caused the printed model to fail, once these factors are identified and the necessary adjustments made, it is believed that the technique will result in significant success.

"We told the patient about the risks involved, notably that using a combination of bioengineering and 3D printing had never been used to help ease a problem in the mouth of an adult before. We told the patient there was a significant chance of infection since the area around the tooth would be exposed to an external substance," Dr Giannobile said. Even though the patient knew the potential risks, he agreed to the treatment.

When the 3D printed scaffold became exposed after 13 months, it was extracted before being analysed, as was the affected area in the patient's mouth.

"This was an important small step to better understand how bioengineered scaffolds that are manufactured using a 3D printer may be used to stimulate tissue regeneration to help patients in the future," Dr Giannobile concluded.