Researchers in Ireland have developed a new technique to 3D print large and complex cartilage implants that can form a scaffold for bone regrowth. The team at Amber in Dublin hopes to put this technology to use for the next generation of hip and knee implants.

Amber is a materials science research facility in Dublin that specializes in 3D printing and works on everything from medical research to next generation batteries and nanowires.

It believes that the research could have far-reaching implications for people with serious spinal, jaw or cranial problems. That’s a broad spectrum that includes everything from injuries through to cancer and birth defects.

Essentially, this new technique involves 3D printing a template for the implant from biomaterials and stem cells. That ‘patch’ can then develop into vascularized, solid bone tissue in situ, under the skin.

“This is a new approach to tissue and organ engineering and we’re very excited,” said Professor Daniel Kelly, who led the team that is based in Trinity College in Dublin.

Professor Daniel Kelly

It certainly sounds like a major step forward and you can head over to Advanced Healthcare Materials to read the full paper: 3D Printing of Developmentally Inspired Templates for Whole Bone Organ Engineering.

Globally, 2.2 million people need some form of bone graft every year. Right now the best solution is either an autograft, which involves taking bone from an unaffected area in the same patient, or an allograft from a compatible donor.

Autografts are generally painful and invasive, which often comes with complications of its own. Allografts carry a degree of risk, including rejection and transmission of disease. Health authorities also have to contend with the logistical delays and costs that go along with finding compatible donors.

Other techniques include a metallic implant and recent advances in 3D printing mean that tailored titanium implants are becoming more popular. Titanium has been used by a number of surgeons for sizeable implants that include entire jaw replacements. Titanium works, then, but biomaterial has to be a better option. A number of recent initiatives have studied the potential benefits of using cartilage or bioglass as a scaffold to encourage bone regrowth. Kelly believes that the development of bone implants is falling way behind ‘simpler’ goals like skin tissue, blood vessels and straightforward cartilage implants.

The University of Milan recently revealed a novel approach to using bioglass, which has been used as a bone implant since the late 60s, to create new lumbar discs. The Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies in Dresden, Germany, has also made great strides with bone substitutes and theRESTORATION project revealed bioceramic plugs that could repair lesser bone damage earlier this year.

This new research, though, presents the real possibility to leave titanium implants behind and actually repair the bone with our own tissue. That would be a quantum leap forward.

AMBER researchers’ method consists of using 3D bioprinting technology to fabricate cartilage templates which have been shown to assist the growth of a complete bone organ. The AMBER team used 3D bioprinting to deposit different biomaterials and adult stem cells in order to engineer cartilage templates matching the shape of a segment within the spine. The team implanted the templates under the skin, where they matured over time into a fully functional bone organ with its own blood vessels. During skeletal development many of our bones are formed by a process in which cartilage templates are transformed into a vascularised and functioning bone organ.

“While the technology has already been used to engineer relatively simple tissues such as skin, blood vessels and cartilage, engineering more complex and vascularised solid organs, such as bone, is well beyond the capabilities of currently available bioprinting technologies,” he said.

“Our research offers real hope in the future for patients with complex bone trauma or large defects following the removal of a tumour. In addition, this bioprinting approach could also be used in the development of the next generation of biological implants for knee and hip replacements.

“Our next stage of this process is to aim to treat large bone defects and then integrate the technology into a novel strategy to bioprint new knees.”

If Amber can find a workable solution, it will be just one of many gamechanging discoveries that the facility is working on. Last month it unveiled its work on nanowires that employed 3D printing technology to create a new germanium-tin alloy that could make the next generation of smartphones up to 125 times more efficient.

Amber is also working on smaller, more efficient batteries that can charge in minutes, rather than hours, using nanotechnology and 3D printing. Professor Valeria Nicolosi is leading that project and was recently awarded a $3 million ERC Consolidator Grant to help with the research.

The facility is fast establishing itself as one of the most exciting research institutions in the 3D printing world. It’s fascinating for us to see how a technology that started out as a rapid prototyping tool has evolved and is now changing the course of medical science and the world  we live in.

Now, we just want to see what the researchers will come up with next.


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