Damaged joints could heal themselves with a little help from 3D printers that can print living tissues. One in 10 people in the world has arthritis, being a painful disease caused by the breaking down of the rubbery cartilage tissue in joints. It also leads to stiffness and swelling.
3D printing technology could help people suffering from arthritis. It can print new cartilage by using the patient’s cells as “building blocks,” and the technique is called bioprinting.
Professor Jos Malda at the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands is working in his lab with 3D bioprinting. His project is called 3D-JOINT, and his team works on making bioprinted tissues which will then be implanted into a living joint to replace the part that was damaged. The bioprinted tissues will transform into something similar to the original cartilage, only that it would be healthy.
Bioprinting With Special Bioink
Prof. Malda explains that the process is not that easy, as a printer cannot transform stem cells into new body parts and organs:
“Printing is not the last step in biofabrication, since printing something in the shape of a heart does not make it a heart. The printed construct needs time and the correct chemical and biophysical cues to mature into a functional tissue.”
Bioprinters need bioinks – which are materials filled with living cells. The material is sometimes a hydrogel, said Prof. Malda:
“For bioprinting, the material has to be able to keep cells alive. This demands aqueous conditions and processing under a relatively low temperature, which makes hydrogel-based materials ideal candidates.”
But specific tissues must endure the mechanical load inside the body, so hydrogels are too weak. To fix this, Prof. Malda and his team are looking for materials that can be added to make hydrogels strong and replace cartilage:
“Reinforcing the hydrogel makes it stronger – just like steel rods are combined with soft cement to create the reinforced concrete that makes the foundations of our homes.”
To reinforce them, the team melted polycaprolactone (a type of polyester) and combined it with an electrical field to create thin fibers. Using the microfibers, they can now combine them with the hydrogel, and the results were positive, added Prof. Malda:
“The combination of the hydrogel with the fibres acts in synergy, increasing the strength of the composite over 50 times while still allowing the cells to generate extracellular matrix and mature into a cartilage-like tissue.”
Next, the team wants to upscale the process and eventually 3D print a whole joint.
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.