Since it’s development as a viable technology, 3-D printing has presented us with some very interesting possibilities. In addition to objects made of plastic, metal, and possibly meat (a proposed idea still in development), printers may be used to create something else entirely: cartilage! Yes, in a recent announcement, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine claimed to have pioneered an approach to replace damaged cartilage.
The process combines two low-cost techniques – electronspinning and inkjet/bioprinting – to create the world’s first class of synthetic implantable biomaterial. The first is a method that that is used to create synthetic, polymer-based nanoscale-fibrous materials for implants and wound dressing, while the second is currently used to create tissue and organ material.
Each process is viable, but comes with its own share of shortcomings. Electrospun materials typically don’t have the ability to promote cellular growth, nor do they have the flexibility needed for cartilage replacement. And inkjet printed materials lack the structure and strength needed to support the loads that cartilage carries. But by merging to two systems together, the researchers at Wake Forest to overcome these limitations and create something viable.
Their hybrid approach alternates microscopic layers of electrospun fiber and printed, living cartilage cells cultivated from rabbit ears, thus generating an artificial cartilage pad that is suitable for implanting. An eight-week study in mice showed that the implanted pads developed cellular structure similar to natural cartilage, while separate mechanical strength tests demonstrated that it was equivalent to the real thing.
For medical practitioners, the benefits of this breakthrough are obvious. Natural cartilage not only takes a long time to heal, it has almost no ability to regrow itself. At present, doctors rely on approach that combines removing small sections of damaged cartilage with microscopic grafts. However, neither of these methods are effective at restoring the cushioning, lubricating tissue that allows for full range of motion or impact on the limbs. What’s more, the long term effects of bone on bone contact can require eventual joint replacement.
Though the research is still in the early stages, the initial results have been quite positive. With time, and assuming the results continue to be as positive, we could be looking at a cheap and effective way to rehabilitate damaged limbs.