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3-D printed jaw lets 83-year-old breathe, chew and talk

A customized artificial jawbone built with a 3-D printer has allowed an 83-year-old woman to continue breathing, chewing, and chatting away, a team of European scientists announced.

The first-of-a-kind jaw reconstruction was accomplished with a printing technique called laser melting where layers of a metallic powder are built up and fused together with a laser.

In this case, the powder is titanium. Once built, the entire artificial jawbone was coated with a type of ceramic that made it compatible with body tissue.

University of Hasselt

A researcher holds up a replica of a lower jawbone that was created with 3-D printer that was implanted in an 83-year-old woman.

The design, production and processing of the implant was done digitally in just two hours. Other implant building methods can take up to two days, the University of Hasselt in Belgium noted

The rapid construction technique allowed the team to address a rapidly progressing infection in the woman's lower jaw that required complete removal of the bone in order to retain an open airway.

They decided to go with the 3-D printed jawbone for the sake of speed and functionality. Other options would have led to either a non-functional lower jaw or required a lengthy surgery and recovery time.

During surgery, the patient's deteriorating jawbone was removed and replaced with the custom implant. One day after the operation, she had normal function and was able to talk and swallow.

The completed implant weighs about 107 grams, which is around 30 grams heavier than a natural bone, the team reported. The difference, they said, is manageable for the patient.

In a statement, team member Jules Pouken from the University of Hasselt  likened the feat to man's first step on the moon: "A cautious, but firm step."

The team explained the procedure during a press conference in Belgium on Feb. 3. More images and details are available from the University of Hasselt.

Only time will tell whether 3-D printing will revolutionize the medical profession, but this feat marks rapid advancement in a field that seemed futuristic just a few months ago.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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