Researchers from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. have developed a technique for 3D printing cartilage implants that could be used in the future to repair damaged cartilage in humans. The new technique solves some key problems with printing load-bearing tissue such as cartilage. To produce viable tissues for implants, technologies are needed that can provide a synthetic scaffold on which living cells can grow. Previous efforts have not been able to produce material that combines the mechanical characteristics of strength and flexibility with the ability to promote cell growth.

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The new technique is described in a paper, “Hybrid printing of mechanically and biologically improved constructs for cartilage tissue engineering applications,” (free registration required for access) published this month in Biofabrication by Tao Xu and colleagues at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The new technique alternates “electrospinning” of synthetic polycaprolactone fibers with layers of living cells cultivated from rabbits’ ears. A study with mice confirms that implanted pads generated by the new method develop a cellular structure like that of natural cartilage.

An announcement from the Institute of Physics, the publisher of the study, suggests how this new discovery might be used in the future:

Cartilage constructs could be clinically applied by using an MRI scan of a body part, such as the knee, as a blueprint for creating a matching construct. A careful selection of scaffold material for each patient’s construct would allow the implant to withstand mechanical forces while encouraging new cartilage to organize and fill the defect.

The authors of the paper write that “This study demonstrates the feasibility of constructing a hybrid inkjet printing system using off-the-shelf components to produce cartilage constructs with improved biological and mechanical properties.”

Drawing and photo credit: IOP Publishing/Biofabrication

+ Institute of Physics