A new breakthrough has occurred in bone repair and replacement surgery for breaks, fractures, and other bone defects. To this day, the materials used in this type of surgery have proven difficult for the doctor and painful for the patient. Now, researchers have developed a new way for patients to receive bone implants – not having to take bone from another part of their bodies, but rather printing the bone from a 3D printer with a biomaterial that will eventually turn into real bone.
The biomaterial, or “ink”, with which the implants are printed with a 3D printer is made up of two main ingredients – a calcium mineral naturally found in bone, hydroxyapatite, and the natural polymer PLGA (poly lactic-co-glycolic acid), which acts as a glue to hold the hydroxyapatite together. The PLGA is also very flexible, which allows the printed scaffold of the implant to be able to be misshapen or deformed and then come back to its original shape. This advantage of the polymer means that surgeons could even reshape the implant during surgery, if necessary.
It is a natural environment for regeneration with the hydroxyapatite, which induces the cells to begin mineralization, which will then turn the implant into real bone
The implant will eventually morph into real bone by the body’s natural methods. Cells and blood vessels will populate the scaffold of the implant due to its microscopic structure mimicking that of real bone. The 3D printed structure provides a natural environment for regeneration with the hydroxyapatite, which induces the cells to begin mineralization, which will then turn the implant into real bone.
The lead of this ground-breaking research, Ramille N. Shah, explained, “When you put stem cells on our scaffolds, they turn into bone cells and start to up-regulate their expression of bone specific genes. This is in the absence of any other osteo-inducing substances. It’s just the interaction between the cells and the material itself.”
Another pertinent application for these printed implants is for use in child patients who, still growing, often need replacements that can be very painful. To allow the implants to be versatile with growth, the biomaterial can be made to include different growth factors to further enhance regeneration, as well as antibiotics to prevent infections after surgery.
These 3D printed implants have only been tested on animals, but those tests have been very successful and promising. Shah believes that after more extensive trials, the implant biomaterial will reach clinics within five years. She hopes for a swift and easy solution to bone repair surgery- for hospitals to have 3D printers that will print individually tailored implants for patients within 24 hours.