Hornbill Gets Second Chance at Life With 3d-Printed Prosthetic

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Xie Shangzhe applies dental resin on a 3D-printed casque for Jary, a great pied hornbill. Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Even birds get cancer, and as with humans, doctors do their best to save them.

In Singapore's Jurong Bird Park, a great pied hornbill developed an aggressive form of cancer, and doctors moved swiftly to save him with a 3D-printed prosthetic casque.

"This case is a great example of how veterinarians and engineers can work together to utilize science and technology for the treatment of diseases such as cancer in all species, including birds," says Xie Shangzhe, assistant director of conservation, research and veterinary services at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, in a statement.

A warrior's new helmet

In July, keepers at the park noticed an 8-centimeter-wide gash on the hornbill's casque, or the helmet-like structure that sits atop the beak. The bird, named Jary (pronounced ya-ri, meaning "a warrior with a helmet" in ancient Norse), was the third hornbill in the park to develop cancer. The first succumbed following chemotherapy treatments while the second's cancer progressed too quickly for treatment.

In an effort to keep Jary alive, keepers and veterinarians acted quickly. Jary underwent a CT-guided biopsy to extract a tissue sample from the casque. Following examination of the sample and confirmation that it was indeed cancer, the team worked to determine a different course of action than they previously had tried.

The result was a collaboration between the park's team and the Keio-National University of Singapore (NUS) Connective Ubiquitous Technology for Embodiments Center, the NUS Smart Systems Institute, the NUS Center for Additive Manufacturing and the Animal Clinic. Their idea? A 3D-printed prosthetic casque that would cover the original space occupied by the natural casque while it recovered and regrew following the removal of the cancer.

Jary, a great pied hornbill, rests after receiving his 3D-printed casque
Jary rests after receiving his 3D-printed casque. Wildlife Reserves Singapore

The NUS-affiliated groups provided the engineering and 3D-printing facilities while Hsu Li Chieh from the Animal Clinic assessed the prosthetic. It took the team two months to design one that would fit the 22-year-old bird.

Doctors performed Jary's surgery on Sept. 13. They used an oscillating saw to remove portions of the infected casque and then used a drill guide to affix the prosthetic. Dental resin was used to fill in any gaps.

"Together, we achieved the best possible outcome," Shangzhe says. "Jary was eating normally the day after the surgery, and recently also started rubbing the prosthetic casque on its preening glands, which secretes yellow pigment. These natural behaviors are good indications that he has accepted the prosthesis as part of him."

Wildlife Reserves Singapore posted a video of the surgery and footage of a recovering Jary on their Facebook page. (Please note the footage is graphic in nature.)