The days may be numbered for those late-night, finger-stuck-on-a-coffee-cup Poli-Grip commercials. Imagine if dentists could fabricate exact replicas of your teeth to replace any that might go missing. Using existing technologies in 3-D printing, biocomposite material, and medical imaging, it might already be possible. And once we can print teeth, printing other body parts can't be far behind.
Dentists already use machines to make accurate fake teeth. But current techniques involve plugging an MRI into a milling machine and cutting the new tooth from a block of polymer. It's a time-consuming process, and not all that accurate. Teeth are actually a complicated shape, and it's hard to fashion one by milling that fully mimics each tooth's unique shape.
But Iranian scientsts have recently figured out that printing them layer by layer—as a 3-D printer does—allows the formation of a much more accurate denture. More importantly, it could happen almost instantly. Go to the dentist, have them print out some new teeth, be on your way (painful dental procedures notwithstanding).
Problems of recreating them aside, teeth are actually fairly simple, with no joints or moving parts. Once we've mastered the printing of them, however, other items may soon follow. Prosthetics made with bones that accurately mimic the lost bone could be wonderful (indeed, the Iranian scientists also worked on printing out parts of the jaw). Once we can remake our body's building blocks with pinpoint accuracy, the possibilities for medical science become much broader.
[Image: Flickr user B Byers]