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If there’s one thing biomedical engineering remains challenged at, it’s a full-scale replacement of human soft tissue with fabricated soft tissue. While cells, skin, and other tissue has been created with 3D printing and prosthetics, there is always risk that the body will reject the new fabricated material and infections to develop.

Surgeries to replace anything that human cells create, can be invasive and difficult. Notwithstanding, knee replacements, hip replacements, and other replacements do take place with great success.

Now, however, with 3D printing, bio scientists are moving closer and closer to using 3D printed artificial tissues to help bone and cartilage heal. This is particularly useful to sports-related images where body parts such as knees, ankles, and elbows are common ailments of athletes. Often this is due to injury and requires medical action and intervention – not only to heal, but also to continue their sport.

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The Need for Biomedical Innovations

Impact sports such as soccer, football, and others are notorious for causing injuries. Joints are stressed and can’t always hold up to the extreme levels of competition without some injury somewhere along the line. Players, coaches, and athletes are all too often faced with the dilemma of a valuable and skilled player being injured and unable to perform because of injury.

Increasingly, advances in biomedical technology are providing innovative technology solutions that are making this less problematic. Albeit, progress is slow, as there are numerous challenges along the way that make the full implementation of a biomedical solution feasible.

It gets even more difficult when bone, tissue, and cartilage are involved as so many factors come into play. Thanks to science and the hard work of researchers, things are changing.

3D Printing Artificial Tissue

In a conjoint effort, scientists at Rice University and the University of Maryland have been successful at fabricating medical scaffolds. Scaffolding is a delicately fabricated structure that helps perform the same function as tissue around bone and joints performed. Remarkably, they’re able to create a compressible layer of cartilage that appears as the smooth surface on the ends of long bones.

3D-printed artificial tissue (scaffold).
Photo courtesy: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Bone and joint injuries can not only be painful but can easily stifle an athlete’s progress in a sport, if not end their athletic career. By creating medical structures or scaffolds that essentially connect cartilage into bone, they are able to meticulously recreate the characteristics of human cartilage, right down to the fine porosity – which had previously been difficult, if not impossible, to replicate for use by the human body.

The Biomaterials Lab at Rice printed a scaffold with custom mixtures of a polymer for the former and a ceramic for the latter with imbedded pores that would allow the patient’s own cells and blood vessels to infiltrate the implant, eventually allowing it to become part of the natural bone and cartilage.

“Athletes are disproportionately affected by these injuries, but they can affect everybody,” said Bittner, a third-year bioengineering graduate student at Rice, a National Science Foundation fellow and lead author of the paper. “I think this will be a powerful tool to help people with common sports injuries.”

Enabling the Human Body to Heal

The idea is for the composition of the structure to adequately mimic real live human tissue; and with the new given porosity, blood vessels can grow into the native bone.

It sounds about as close as we can come to recreating the human body synthetically. Only part of the body is synthetic, and the remainder aids the body to generate blood vessels itself and treat the 3D printed scaffolding as if it were tissue.

“For the most part, the composition will be the same from patient to patient,” Bittner said. “There’s porosity included so vasculature can grow from the native bone. We don’t have to fabricate the blood vessels ourselves.”

It’s not the end of the research journey though. There’s still some challenge in getting the fabricated material and its porosity to further grow into the human body. But it presents new hope and a new frontier of regeneration of cartilage, bone, and joints that was simply unheard-of only decades (or less) ago.

“In that context, what we’ve done here is impactful and may lead to new regenerative medicine solutions,” Mikos said.

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