It’s hard to keep up with 3D bioprinting technology. What seemed, not so long ago, a futuristic dream is now advancing with incredible speed. Numerous organizations, from corporations to universities, are developing their own variations of the technology, each slightly different, but all aimed at the same goal: 3D printing viable human organs. Most of the cells and tissues developed so far remain in the laboratory, used for pharmaceutical tests and further studies, but we are getting closer to being able to implant 3D-printed tissue in the human body.
While the field may be advancing rapidly, the process of creating 3D-printed cells and tissues in the lab is relatively slow and deliberate. A person unfamiliar with technology can imagine doctors pulling out a 3D printer, turning it on, and… voila! – a 3D printed ear! In reality, the 3D-printed cells must be carefully cultured and allowed to grow into viable tissue in a process that takes at least days. But a new development by researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia could speed up that process, with a tool that is essentially a biological 3Doodler.
The BioPen grew out of a collaboration between researchers at the UoW-based Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) and orthopedic surgeons at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. The device would allow surgeons to repair damaged bone and cartilage by “pulling” new cells directly onto the bone in the middle of a surgical procedure. A team led by ACES director Professor Gordon Wallace developed the pen, which was then transferred to St. Vincent for researchers to work on optimizing it for clinical trials.
How it works: The pen is loaded with a bioink made up of stem cells inside a biopolymer such as alginate, an extract of algae, which is in turn protected by a second layer of hydrogel. The ink is then extruded onto the surface of the bone and solidified by ultraviolet light embedded in the pen. Once they get into the bone, they will multiply inside the patient’s body, differentiating into nerve, muscle and bone cells and eventually growing into tissue.
The technique could revolutionize the way surgeons repair cartilage, in particular. For certain types of injuries, it is difficult or impossible for surgeons to discern the exact shape of the area requiring an implant, making it extremely difficult to design an artificial cartilage implant prior to surgery. With the BioPen, surgeons could simply fill the damaged area with the hydrogel solution.
“This type of treatment may be suitable for repairing severely damaged bone and cartilage, for example from sports or motor vehicle injuries,” said Professor Peter Choong, director of orthopedics at St. Vincent’s. “Professor Wallace’s research team brings together stem cell science and polymer chemistry to help surgeons design and customize solutions to reconstruct bone and joint defects in real time.”
The cell solution could also be further customized by adding drugs to boost healing and regrowth. The BioPen prototype was 3D printed from medical-grade plastic and titanium to make it lightweight and easy to sterilize.
“The combination of materials science and next-generation manufacturing technology is creating opportunities that can only be realized through effective collaborations like this,” said Professor Wallace. “In addition, advances in 3D printing are enabling more hardware innovations at a rapid rate.”
So far, cells produced by BioPen have shown a survival rate of over 97%. The full research study has recently been published in the journal biofabrication.
Below, Professor Choong demonstrates how the BioPen works. What do you think of technology? Do you think it will catch on among surgeons? Discuss it in the 3D Printing BioPen forum at 3DPB.com.
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