updated 2/7/2012 11:49:50 AM ET 2012-02-07T16:49:50

When surgeons replaced the infected lower jawbone of an 83-year-old woman, they needed a fast replacement tailored to fit the patient's existing bone structure, nerves and muscles. That medical dilemma inspired a world-first achievement -- creating a customized jawbone from scratch with 3D printing technology.

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The "printing" process used a laser to heat and melt metal powder in the shape of the jawbone. That process, carried out by Belgian manufacturer LayerWise, allowed the 3D printer to sculpt and build up the patient's medical implant layer by layer. A bioceramic coating ensured that the patient's body would not reject the implant.

"The new treatment method is a world premiere because it concerns the first patient-specific implant in replacement of the entire lower jaw," said Jules Poukens, a surgeon at the University Hasselt in Belgium.

Poukens led the team of surgeons that implanted the new jawbone during a four-hour operation at a hospital in Sittard-Geleen in the Netherlands last June, according to the Dutch newspaper De Pers. The elderly patient made a rapid recovery.

"Shortly after waking up from the anesthetics, the patient spoke a few words, and the day after, the patient was able to speak and swallow normally again," Poukens said.

3D printing has already helped many DIY innovators create everything from robots to household items on demand based upon digital designs. But the combination of precise designs and rapid manufacturing could have even greater potential for creating customized body parts for medical patients -- especially when transplanted bone structures and organs suffer from short supply.

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"As illustrated by the lower jaw reconstruction, patient-specific implants can potentially be applied on a much wider scale than transplantation of human bone structures and soft tissues," said Peter Mercelis, managing director of LayerWise. "The use of such implants yield excellent form and function, speeds up surgery and patient recovery, and reduces the risk for medical complications."

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