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New 3-D printer research could lead to better bone implants

by Gail Kalinoski, Contributing Reporter | October 06, 2016
Business Affairs
A hyperelastic bone in the shape of
a section of the human spine, 3-D printed
using an ink developed at Northwestern
Credit: Adam E. Jakus
Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a 3-D printable ink that produces a synthetic bone implant that can be easily shaped and customized. The material, which rapidly promotes bone regeneration, could be particularly helpful for treating children with bone defects.

The Northwestern Engineering team led by Ramille N. Shah said the results of their research, done only on animals to this point, were “quite astounding,” according to Reuters.

The hope is to someday make bone implantation easier, because now either metallic implants are used or bone is harvested from elsewhere in the body and can lead to pain and complications. Because children’s bones are still growing, those processes will likely have to be repeated as the child gets older.

“Adults have more options when it comes to implants. Pediatric patients do not. If you give them a permanent implant, you have to do more surgeries in the future as they grow. They might face years of difficulty,” Shah, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and of surgery in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Human trials may start within five years.

The new study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine with Adam E. Jakus, a postdoctoral fellow in Shah’s laboratory, as the first author.

The 3-D printed biomaterial is described as hydroxyapatite, which is calcium mineral in bones, mixed with a biocompatible, biodegradable polymer already used by doctors for sutures and other medical procedures. The researchers found the hyperelastic material to fuse with new bone and was strong yet flexible enough to be used in a small incision, according to a Scientific American article.

“Porosity is huge when it comes to tissue regeneration, because you want cells and blood vessels to infiltrate the scaffold. Our 3-D structure has different levels of porosity, which is advantageous for its physical and biological properties,” Shah said.

During a press conference to discuss their findings, Shah pointed to the unique properties of the material – being highly porous and absorbent – and stated that it is important for cell and tissue integration.

Jakus noted that other types of bone grafts used now or being developed can be too brittle to be customized, can be expensive, and can also be rejected by the body. Those issues could be overcome by their material.

“It’s purely synthetic, very cheap and very easy to make,” he was quoted as saying in the Reuters story. “It can be packaged, shipped and stored very nicely.”

Shah and Jakus said the hope is that someday those properties would make the material very desirable for use in third-world nations to help children with bone deformities. Shah also said she could foresee hospitals in the future having 3-D printers on site, where they could print customized bone implants for their patients.

Jakus said in the Scientific American article that the ink could be stored for up to a year and the bone implants could be printable within a few minutes or hours.

“The turnaround time for an implant that’s specialized for a customer could be within 24 hours,” Shah said in Scientific American. “That could change the world of craniofacial and orthopedic surgery and, I hope, will improve patient outcomes.”

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