It’s like pulling teeth, they say, when something is particularly difficult.

While having teeth pulled is still a pain, replacing the teeth pulled could become less painful.

Researchers here have invented a 3D-printed scaffold to grow bone for placing dental implants after a tooth has been extracted.

This could eliminate the need for painful bone grafting, in which bone is taken from other parts of the patient’s body.

The scaffold was developed by dental surgeons from National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS) and bioengineers from Nanyang Technological University over the past five years.

They say it is “the first of its kind in the world in terms of design and material” and plan to roll it out around three years later, after a second trial involving 132 patients is completed.

It was first successfully tested on seven patients.

The invention will be particularly helpful, given that the number of tooth decay and gum disease cases in Singapore is likely to increase because of an ageing population, said Dr Goh Bee Tin, deputy director of research and education at NDCS.

The scaffold is made of a porous, synthetic material and traps bone-forming cells in the empty tooth socket. It is more effective in growing bone than the bone substitutes from animals and humans now used.

“Bone substitutes take a long time to be absorbed by the body,” said Dr Goh. “In comparison, the scaffold is absorbed fully and much faster by the body, and is cheaper to make.”

The scaffold has been patented and NDCS is working with artificial bone scaffold company Osteopore International to fabricate it.

Besides developing the scaffolds, NDCS started using 3D imaging and printing technology for corrective jaw surgery two years ago.

Surgeons are now able to simulate the surgery on 3D virtual and physical skull models, as well as print plastic templates of what the patient’s jaw would look like after surgery. These are placed on the patient’s jaw during the operation to guide surgeons.

They can reduce the time needed in planning and executing the surgery, as well as complications.

“The models make the surgery more precise... surgeons have a clearer idea of what they should do and what vital anatomy to avoid,” said Dr Chew Ming Tak, Senior Consultant at the Department of Orthodontics at NDCS.

Last year, more than half of the 140 or so jaw surgery cases at NDCS used 3D imaging technology in the planning of treatments.

When student Priscilla Chan, 22, was to undergo surgery two years ago to have her long jaw corrected, her dentist used 3D technology to print out a mould of what her jaw would look like after the operation.

“It was quite exciting to see what I would look like after surgery and I felt safer,” she said.