How do you make a prosthetic jaw strong enough to survive in the ocean but light enough to allow freedom of movement? You start with a 3-D printer. Shaping metal to such exacting specifications would, in other times, have been the work of a skilled artisan; recently, thanks to advances in 3-D printing technology, researchers were able to create a functional prosthesis for an injured turtle in only two months.
There was just one question: Who had the expertise to meld together industrial fabrication with veterinary science?
Enter BTech Innovations. This Turkish medical biotechnology corporation specializes in crafting custom-designed prostheses and implants. It began by performing a series of detailed CT scans to map the structure of the turtle’s jaw and skull; with that information, the BTech team created a bespoke virtual prosthesis that perfectly matched the contours of the wounded turtle’s face.
The turtle — named AKUT3 by its rescuers at Pamukkale University’s Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Pamukkale, Turkey — was maimed last year by a boat propeller while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Jagged scars ran across its upper and lower jaws where the errant propeller had shorn away nearly half of its mouth. Without a prosthesis, AKUT3 would never eat on its own again.
After a two-and-a-half hour surgery, AKUT3 emerged from the operating room as the first of its species to benefit from 3-D printing techniques — but he’s not the first turtle to sport a prosthesis.
That title goes to Allison, a loggerhead sea turtle living at the Sea Turtle Inc. rehabilitation center at South Padre Island, Texas. Allison lost three of her fins to a shark attack in 2005. With only one functional limb, she could barely swim.
A solution wasn’t discovered until Jef George, the director of Sea Turtle Inc. reached out to a retired engineer. The engineer crafted a special dorsal-fin prosthesis that wrapped around Allison’s shell and provided the stability necessary for the turtle to swim in something other than circles.
What surprised George most was not how the pros- thesis helped Allison, but how Allison’s prosthesis made her visitors feel.
“The thing that surprised me most is how quickly Allison is able to form a bond with people with prosthetic devices,” George says. “There is a bond when people like veterans come to our center, people wounded by life, and they see how Allison has persevered.”