Jary shows the way

Kiran Mehta | Updated on November 16, 2018 Published on November 16, 2018

Fit for survival: Dr Hsu Li Chieh from Singapore’s The Animal Clinic, in the process of removing Jary’s casque with an oscillating saw. The bird was fitted with a prosthetic casque after the removal of cancerous tissue from its natural one   -  WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE/ DAVID TAN

3D-printed prosthetics save Jurong Bird Park inmate from aggressive form of cancer

First, the bad news. Cancer struck Jary when he was around 22 years old. Now for the good news. The great pied hornbill is fine — thanks to the efforts of doctors in Singapore.

Jurong Bird Park in Singapore has earned the distinction of being the world’s largest bird sanctuary in terms of the number of species there. Spread across 20-odd hectares, it is home to 3,500 birds from over 400 species. And 20 per cent of the bird population comprises endangered species. Jary belongs to one such species — the great pied hornbill. Loss of natural habitat has brought the species’ numbers down to such an extent that it can become extinct in the near future.

Hornbills get their names from their unusually large beaks or casques, which help them disperse seeds in forests. Ornithologists remain divided on the function of the casque. Some believe it only reinforces the bill; others hold that it serves as an echo chamber, allowing the call of the bird to be heard at long distances. The colour and size of the casque differ across sub-species.

“Unlike many other species of the hornbill, the pigment in the great pied’s casque does not have natural UV-protection. It is perhaps due to this factor the bird is more prone to cancer,” says Dr Xie Shangzhe, assistant director, conservation, research and veterinary services, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which manages Jurong Bird Park. The great pied hornbill has a fantastic black and yellow casque; in the female, the black part contains hints of red.

Jary’s 8-cm wide gash around his casque was first spotted in July this year by Kimberly Wee, a junior avian keeper. “I was shocked to see a wound on Jary’s casque and I immediately informed the veterinary team,” Wee says. In the recent past, the park had seen two similar cases of cancer in female hornbills. One was aged 18 and the other, 20. Both succumbed to cancer and Wee, Jary’s human mom, feared the worst.

WRS, however, wanted Jary’s story to end differently. They sought help from the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital (VES), Singapore, which took a tissue sample from the casque. Post the biopsy, VES identified the type of cancer: Squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of the deadly disease. Wee says, “My heart sank when I heard the diagnosis.” But the WRS team decided to fight this head on.

Medicine combined with engineering to come up with an innovative solution; that of creating a prosthetic casque for Jary. Three-dimensional or 3D-printing is a procedure through which a subject’s digital blueprint is created. The version is then brought to life with material such as gypsum, ceramic, steel, brass, bronze and resin. This solid imaging process was invented by Charles Hull in 1983. One of the first objects that he printed was a plastic eye-wash cup.

Over the decades, the medical field has harnessed the power of this technology — from producing dental crowns and bridges, to customised hearing aid shells. More recently, experiments and trials have been conducted to create artificial skin, which could be used to treat burn patients, and prosthetic limbs for those injured in wars and accidents. It was a pioneering surgical procedure using this technology that eventually gave Jary a new lease of life.

WRS next approached the Keio-NUS CUTE (Connective Ubiquitous Technology for Embodiments) Centre, NUS Smart Systems Institute, and NUS Centre to produce the prosthesis. Honorary consultant Dr Hsu Li Chieh from The Animal Clinic assessed the 3D prosthetic models. It took almost two months to create the perfect casque for the ailing bird.

“This is a great example of how veterinarians and engineers can work together to utilise science and technology for the treatment of diseases such as cancer in all species,” says Dr Shangzhe , The bird was fitted with the prosthetic casque after the removal of cancerous tissues from the natural helmet-like body part.

After surgery on September 13, Jary has been under the care of the park’s veterinary team. Just a day after the procedure, the team was delighted to find the bird eating normally. Jary has now started rubbing the prosthetic casque on his preening or oil glands — which secrete the yellow pigment — in order to give his new beak its old colour. Dr Shangzhe says, “These natural behaviours are indications that he has accepted the prosthesis.”

Most great pied hornbills live an average of 40 years in the wild, and 50 years in captivity. Jary is currently recuperating and is expected to live out his years at Jurong.

Kiran Mehta is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on November 16, 2018
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