3D printing technology has been wielded to grow hearts, body parts, and meat, but recently it came to the rescue of an endangered hornbill under ZooTampa’s care. The great hornbill, known as Crescent, developed cancer in its bill but thanks to some surgery and a custom-printed prosthesis she’s back on her feet.
Crescent developed a type of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. It’s a common form of skin cancer among humans and is one that’s often deadly for hornbills.
The tumor was affecting Crescent’s casque, a characteristic feature that sits on the bird’s head, which acts as both a resonating chamber for the bird’s calls as well as indicating sexual maturity.
Help for the future of Crescent’s casque arrived from the University of South Florida (USF) Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Radiology where Professor Summer Decker heads up the 3D Clinical Applications lab. The team here have historically volunteered their skills in assisting the nonprofit zoo's residents by carrying out specialty imaging, and they hatched the idea that Crescent's condition could perhaps be remedied with the help of 3D printing.
“We asked ourselves, if this was a human, what would we do?" Decker said in a released emailed to IFLScience. "So we began to plan how to fix Crescent’s casque using the technology we use every day on our human patients - 3D printing."
With the help of equipment from Formlabs, a Massachusetts-based 3D printing technology founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab students, the USF team of researchers put together a 3D-printed replacement for the diseased section of Crescent’s casque.
They were also able to use 3D imaging and printing to create cutting guides for Crescent's specific tumor, making the removal of the tumor easier for the surgeons.
Removing the tumor meant Crescent’s sinuses would be exposed, so using the printers the USF team created a new, synthetic casque that was created with the help of CT scans. They opted to use a novel material, BioMed White Resin, which would be suitably tough without being too heavy.
Surgeons were able to attach the 3D-printed casque to Crescent’s beak using dental acrylic. While its initial coloration wasn’t quite in keeping with Crescent’s look, the material proved to be compatible with the preening oils secretes from glands above her tail, meaning after a bit of self-pampering her prosthesis was the same color as the rest of her casque.
Crescent is said to be recovering well from her surgery, and is eating, acting and – perhaps most impressively – sounding exactly as she did before.
Crescent, still a little high on meds trying out her new casque for balance. Video credit: ZooTampa
Great hornbills, also known as Indian hornbills (Buceros bicornis), are listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable. The wild population stretches from India to Indonesia but has been decreasing due to hunting, logging, and urban development in their habitats.
“Formlabs’ 3D printers and BioMed materials are used to deliver precision healthcare, and clinical literature has shown improved outcomes when patient-specific prosthetics, medical devices, and surgical guides have been used with human patients,” said director of medical market development at Formlabs Gaurav Manchanda in a statement sent to IFLScience.
“We’re thrilled that our technology was also able to bring these same benefits to Crescent, who also uncovered a unique, unexpected benefit that warmed the hearts of everyone involved.”
Update: This story was amended on 07/04/2022 to reflect that the 3D Clinical Applications at University of Sout Florida Health Radiology in Tampa, Florida, was responsible for the design and creation of Crescent's 3D-printed casque.