May 25, 2014

Last April I wrote a news piece on a new 3D bioprinting method that could bring 3D printed cartilage closer to reality, especially with regard to curing osteoarthritis. I reported on a highly detailed article by NanoWerk but could not find out anything about something that I (and, I’m guessing, a large number of people like me) was very interested in: could the same method be used to treat chronic lower back pain (i.e herniated discs)?

Chronic lower back pain affects 60–70% of the populations of industrialized countries (and it is one of the most popular reasons for obtaining medical marijuana prescriptions in California) so, although osteoarthritis is a more pressing concern, curing herniated discs is certainly a widespread issue that should be addressed.

As a result, I tried to contact the author of the study, Dr. Rocky Tuan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who – as you might imagine – is extremely busy. He did however take a little time off his schedule to answer my questions, and yes: his method could be used to treat lower back pain as well.

“The technology should have applications for other diseases involving cartilage degeneration,” Dr. Tuan confirmed. “Indeed, developing a means of delivering 3D-based cartilage regeneration to repair degenerated disc is on our agenda.”

California pot smokers can exhale a breath of relief for the long term, but will need to be patient: according to Dr. Tuan, the state of cartilage 3D printing is still in an early, pre-clinical phase. “More studies are needed using large animal models, followed by clinical trials,” Dr Tuan said. “It will take another five years before controlled clinical trials in humans”.

Articular cartilage, the tissue covering the ends of long bones, is a great starting point for 3D bioprinting working human tissue. “[the articular cartilage] is structurally and mechanically unique, in that it is made up of only one cell type, chondrocytes, and has a viscoelastic matrix,” Dr. Tuan explained. “Our photocrosslinked hydrogel yields an engineered tissue that mimics the native cartilage tissue, and is therefore promising for the repair of cartilage in degenerative joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis.”

Dr Tuan’s method accelerates the time to trials by using biocompatible visible light, instead of potentially harmful UV, to photopolymerize the cartilage construct. “This should improve the viability and long term health of the engineered tissue,” he said.

“Traditional engineered tissues usually involve first forming the biomaterial scaffold and then seeding the scaffold with the needed cells. This is an inefficient and incomplete process, often resulting in uneven or poorly cell seeded construct.  In our method, cells are first suspended in the polymer solution which is then photopolymerized with the cells already incorporated, resulting in homogeneous cell distribution.”

This already sounds so much better than anything I ever heard about with current methods, raging anywhere from: “I will cut you up right away” to “there is nothing you can do about your chronic back pain.”


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