A great hornbill’s life has been saved by a team of veterinarians, dermatology experts and other staff members at a zoo in Florida following a successful surgery to replace the bird’s cancerous beak with a 3D-printed prosthetic one.
Animal caretakers at ZooTampa were fearful for 25-year-old Crescent’s life after the colorful bird – generally found in Southeast Asia – developed squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer that often proves to be fatal for the species but not for humans, at the top of its beak – also known as a ‘helmet.’
Despite the grim diagnosis, Crescent’s caregivers refused to give up. They sought consultation from medical experts in a bid to extend the hornbill’s life, although they were warned that the median survival time for birds once they catch the disease is 357 days, according to scientific research.
From there, it became a race against time to save Crescent’s life.
ZooTampa contacted veterinarians from all across the country, as well as several human doctors specializing in dermatology, with many agreeing to volunteer in the process – much to the zoo’s surprise.
‘We asked ourselves, if this was a human, what would we do?’ said Dr. Summer Decker, vice chair for research and innovation at the University of South Florida’s Department of Radiology.
‘So, we began to plan how to fix Crescent’s helmet using the technology we use every day on our human patients – 3D printing,’ she added.
Dental acrylic and titanium screws were implanted to Crescent’s upper bill as part of the 3D-printed replacement helmet. The surgery to replace Crescent’s beak was the first operation of its kind in the US on a hornbill and only the second around the world.
Crescent, a 25-year-old great hornbill at Zoo Tampa, was diagnosed with a form of skin cancer earlier this year before becoming the first bird in the US and only the second in the world to receive a 3D-printed prosthetic beak
The great hornbill had a form of skin cancer, called squamous cell carcinoma, on her helmet located on top of her beak before surgery
The 25-year-old bird seen after surgery with her new 3D-printed prosthetic flaw in her aviary
RACE AGAINST TIME: The median survival time for birds diagnosed with skin cancer is 357 days
Associate Veterinarian Dr. Kendra Baker, who works at the zoo, said in a news release that continuous talks with oncologists and imaging scientists were ‘an all-in effort.’
A medical imaging technique known as a computerized tomography (CT) scan all but confirmed that removing the tumor from Crescent’s helmet would offer the hornbill its best chance of survival.
But doctors and veterinarians warned that common surgery for this type of procedure would not be performed, or it would leave the bird’s sinuses exposed to bacteria.
‘This tumor is typically found near the front of the helmet in hornbills, but hers was in the back,’ Baker said of Crescent’s condition in a statement.
Crescent was not eligible for typical skin cancer removal surgery as it would have left her sinuses (in red) exposed to potential bacteria infection
Vets, biomedical engineers, physicians and actual human doctors teamed up to remove the tumor (pictured) and replace it with a prosthetic ‘replacement beak’ made by Formlabs, which is a private biomedical laboratory that specializes in manufacturing 3D printing solution
ZooTampa caregivers seen performing surgery on Crescent, who was put asleep, while vets operated on her helmet
The 3D-printed prosthetic (in white) was screwed on the the hornbill’s peak, protecting her sinuses from bacterial exposure
Rebuffing suggestions to not operate on the bird, experts found an innovative way to kill the the tumor and protect her sinuses from bacterial infection.
ZooTampa disclosed that a team of veterinarians, physicians, biomedical engineers and specialists worked together to create a new 3D-printed prosthetic before they surgically removed the tumor from the affected area of Crescent’s helmet.
Formlabs, a private biomedical laboratory that specializes in manufacturing 3D printing solutions, contributed to the surgery.
‘Formlabs donated the material, and the USF Health Radiology 3D team printed the surgical guide and new helmet on a Formlabs 3D printer developed for healthcare use,’ ZooTampa said.
Crescent is now cancer-free, but is being closely watched after, as she recovers from surgery in her aviary
ZooTampa Associate Veterinarian Dr. Kendra Baker (pictured) described the entire process as an ‘an all-in effort.’
Since being released from surgery, the zoo says the hornbill has been recovering well and that her caretakers have not noticed any signs of behavioral change.
Despite Crescent now being cancer-free, she is still closely monitored after being restored inside her aviary.
‘An unexpected benefit came when Crescent began preening within hours after surgery,’ ZooTampa said.
‘The Formlabs resin happened to be compatible with the yellow preening oils secreted from the tassels above her tail, giving the new helmet the same bright glow as her original one.’
The great hornbill, also called the concave-casqued hornbill, great Indian hornbill or great pied hornbill, is one of the the largest of the hornbill family. They are often found in Southeast Asia, noticeably in Indian, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Thai forests.
They often make ‘whooshing’ noise when they are flying due to a shortage of feathers under their wings that is typically found in other birds.
The birds are registered as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, due to the ongoing problem of deforestation.
Hornbills are protected in certain parts of West and Northeast India and Thailand, with their population currently estimated to be between 23,000 to 71,000.
ZooTampa in Tampa, Florida, also known as Crescent’s home