Researchers at Duke University created a hydrogel-based material that mimics cartilage and it may one day be used to 3-D print knee replacement parts customized for each patient.
In many cases of a torn or damaged meniscus, surgeons have to either partially or completely remove it. The current available implants aren't as strong and elastic as natural cartilage.
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"We've made it very easy now for anyone to print something that is pretty close in its mechanical properties to cartilage, in a relatively simple and inexpensive process," Benjamin Wiley, an associate professor of chemistry at Duke, said in a statement.
Hydrogels have a very similar molecular structure to cartilage and they support the growth of cells to encourage healing around the site. But historically it has been a challenge to create recipes for hydrogels that have the same strength as human cartilage and are 3-D printable.
The researchers decided to experiment by combining a stiffer, stronger hydrogel with a softer, more flexible hydrogel to create a double-network hydrogel. They adjusted the amounts of the two hydrogels to achieve a formula that best matches human cartilage.
An ingredient called nano particle clay was also added to make it 3-D-printable. The team then took a CT scan of a plastic model of a knee and used the information to 3-D print new menisci using the double-network hydrogel.
The entire process from the time of the CT scan to the finished 3-D printed menisci took only about a day. In addition, the 3-D printer that was used cost $300.
Customized 3-D-printed implants are already being used for hip replacement, cranial plates and spinal vertebrae procedures.
In February, researchers at Mayo Clinic developed a 3-D printed bioabsorbable scaffold
that can reconstruct ruptured anterior cruciate ligaments in the knee and deliver a protein that promotes bone regeneration.
"This is really a young field, just starting out," said Wiley. "I hope that demonstrating the ease with which this can be done will help get a lot of other people interested in making more realistic printable hydrogels with mechanical properties that are even closer to human tissue."