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Prosthetics advancements giving some patients a new look on life

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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Doctors call it a cancer you cannot hide -- head and neck cancer.   South Carolina has one of the highest rates in the country, claiming ears, eyes, noses, and other parts of the face. 

What is cut away for the patient's life to be saved, often has horrific consequences, but a team at the Medical University of South Carolina is using science, art and medicine to help patients literally put a new face on their disease.

Gary Reeves is a patient who has found new confidence with his prosthetic ear.  The Conway minister shows no embarrassment when he pulls off his silicone prosthetic ear.  It's part of his daily routine.  His prosthesis was custom made for him at MUSC.  He is willing to tell his story, to help the many people who suffer injuries to the face, or cancer.  Reeves was born without a right ear, although most often, ear patients come to the MUSC clinic following cancer.

"It's silicone," said Reeves.

His prosthesis was custom made for him at MUSC.  He is willing to tell his story, to help the many people who suffer injuries to the face, or cancer.  Reeves was born without a right ear, although most often, ear patients come to the MUSC clinic following cancer.

"I think head and neck cancer is the most devastating form of cancer," says Dr. Betsy K. Davis, "because it's the one form you cannot hide from society."  Davis is the director of the Maxillofacial Prosthodontic Clinic at the Medical University of South Carolina.

In fact, cancer brought Dawn Wright to the clinic. The woman from Pawley's Island lost her right eye to ocular melanoma in February of 2009. That meant she had to wear an eye patch, "and everywhere I went, people would take a second look," she said.

Davis went to work to change that, giving Wright a life away from the patch.

Most mornings, Davis can be found making virtual plans for her patients, working through a secure internet connection with a bio-engineer across the Atlantic, who works for Materialise, a company in Belgium.

Once their virtual plan is approved by the surgeon, Titanium screws are used to connect the prosthetic device to the patient's bone. If the bone is strong, a post is placed on the implanted screw. If the bone is not strong, a patient may have to wait several months for the implants to bond.

The silicone prosthetic is made using 3D technology. In Wright's case, a series of magnets will hold her prosthesis in place. The trip for Wright is one in a series. This time, she is having bits of the silicone implant trimmed off that was causing irritation.

Davis' game is one of millimeters with a huge result. And that result, as is the case with most of Davis' patients, is visible immediately.

"And so the first day I went out after getting this [prosthesis] and I could go in the grocery store and nobody stared at me," said Wright. "It was wonderful."

Davis' work is helping people improve their first impressions. "We do live in a society where we're judged by our facial appearance. At least, it's the first thing people notice," she said.

Prosthetics and reconstructive surgery are the option patients have today. However, the future may bring another major advancement that sounds like science fiction. Research is underway at Clemson to produce replacements from human stem cells.

"I think the future most certainly is going to go with tissue engineering," said Davis.

For Reeves, the 3D-generated prosthesis is a giant leap beyond the technology of his first, a hand-sculpted ear. But in the five years since his initial surgery, he's witnessed the remarkable evolution in prosthetics. The minister from Conway tells other patients, the field -- and the technology -- are only getting better.

"Be patient; it takes time to do surgeries," he said. "I went through three surgeries. Be patient, let it heal -- and enjoy the benefits."

The cost for these prostheses is usually covered by insurance. Both Reeves and Wright will have to replace their prostheses every couple years.

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