3D printing is the way of the future. Someday our houses may be 3D printed. 3D printers are already used in medicine as well, mostly to print tailored implants. Now scientists at UNSW Sydney have developed a new ceramic-based ink, which enables 3D printing of bone parts complete with the living cells.
In a lab setting, 3D printing of bones is not new. However, this method does that at room temperature and without any kind of harsh chemicals or radiation. 3D printed structures harden immediately after being placed in water and end up structurally being very close to natural bone tissue. Scientists say that this research could one day result in 3D printers being used in operating theatres to repair bone damage from cancer, trauma or other problems.
The secret of this technology, called ceramic omnidirectional bioprinting in cell-suspensions (COBICS), is in the ink, which is made up of calcium phosphate. This technology allows printing with living cell, creating natural-like structures that are likely to heal into the real bone quickly. Portability of this technology means that 3D printers would be used in operating theatres. Now bone-like structures are printed in laboratories and then are brought into the patient. This new technology is completely unique in that way, because it allows for in situ repair of bone defects.
Kristopher Kilian who co-developed the breakthrough technology explained: “The cool thing about our technique is you can just extrude it directly into a place where there are cells, like a cavity in a patient’s bone. We can go directly into the bone where there are cells, blood vessels and fat, and print a bone-like structure that already contains living cells, right in that area”.
Structures printed using this new method set very quickly. Their conversion into a hard material is non-toxic in a biological environment – no harsh chemicals or radiation involved. Ink starts setting only in contact with the patient’s biological environment. There already has been some interest from the medical community and medical equipment manufacturers in this technology. Scientists envision the future where someone in a need of a bone graft can come to a hospital, have his bones scanned and a new tissue printed directly into the cavity. This would make for quick, efficient and highly personalized repairs. Scientists say that ultimately this technology would reduce patient suffering and save lives.
3D printing is usually used in industrial applications – sometimes complex structures are made that way, sometimes – prototypes. However, it will make its way into a clinical setting as well. As we move towards personalised medicine, 3D printing is going to be key for tissue repair. Someday transplants will be done without actual donors. And ultimately this is going to save many lives.