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 turtleâ€™s jaw and skull; with that information, the BTech team created a bespoke virtual prosthesis that perfectly matched the contours of the wounded turtleâ€™s face.
The turtle â€” named AKUT3 by its rescuers at Pamukkale Universityâ€™s Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Pamukkale, Turkey â€” 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 â€” but heâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 Allisonâ€™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 Allisonâ€™s prosthesis made her visitors feel.
â€œThe thing that surprised me most is how quickly Allison is able to form a bond with people with prosthetic devices,â€ George says. â€œThere is a bond when people like veterans come to our center, people wounded by life, and they see how Allison has persevered.â€