Dentists cutting teeth on 3-D printing tech

Dentists cutting teeth on 3-D printing tech
Dr Ang Chee Wan (left) and Dr Wong of T32 holding the products of 3-D printing technology on digital dentistry. An oral 3-D scanner being used on a patient.

Recovering from a daunting trip to get a tooth extracted could soon become quicker and less painful - thanks to cutting-edge 3-D technology being introduced in Singapore.

Dentists here are adopting 3-D scanning and printing processes and applications which they claim let them offer safer, faster and more accurate procedures - from recreating a jaw to "bio-scaffolds" which allow a tooth socket to retain its shape after a tooth has been removed. This process helps the bone holding the sockets to grow back into place properly with the minimum of discomfort.

The medical and dental sector is the third largest market for 3-D applications worldwide behind consumer electronics and motor vehicles, though Singapore's dental sector has been slow on the uptake.

In this year's Budget, the Government set up a $500 million fund for development of advanced manufacturing capabilities, including 3-D printing.

The move was welcomed by home-grown biotechnology firm, Bio-Scaffold International (BSI), which along with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research helped to develop the 3D-printed scaffold. It sells them at $400 for 10 boxes of 10.

Named Alvelac, it is printed layer by layer from harmless biodegradable materials with properties similar to those of spongy bones found in the human face. The scaffold will dissolve in two to six months, while leaving the socket in shape. It currently comes in eight standard sizes, and being 3-D printed, it can be customised to fit a particular patient's socket. BSI says 20 clinics have taken up the product since it was launched late last year, and more are keen on taking it up.

"It gives better results and the long-term cost is lower because we don't have to put in an artificial bone which is traditionally what we've done," said Dr Seah Yang Howe, a specialist endodontist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.

Researchers here say the slow uptake in actual applications of 3-D printing has been due to resistance from medical practitioners unfamiliar with the technology. Dr Seah himself said he was initially sceptical. "We're cautious because we're using them on people," he admitted.

Local dental clinic T32 on Orchard Boulevard, which began using 3-D printing technology last week, is believed to be the first clinic here to do so. Using an oral 3-D scanner, dentists create customised plastic surgical guides that help them make very precise cuts during surgery.

"It ensures a higher level of safety because we're able to, based on the patient's personal information, customise and design something specifically for the patient," said T32's founder and managing director Wong Keng Mun. "That increases the accuracy and efficiency of procedures and devices. We can also print model jaws that are identical to that of the patient we will be working on and do surgical dry runs on (the models), raising the chances of success."

His company spent $150,000 on the 3-D printer and scanner but Dr Wong says the costs will not be passed on to patients, as he believes other surgical operations will follow suit soon.

Others in his field are starting to recognise the potential of 3-D printing, said Dr Wong, adding: "We believe we'll start seeing more applications as the future of dentistry is in digital. We want to eventually be able to print customised implants and bone insertions right in the dental clinic."

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