3D printers to create bone-like material

As 2012 approaches, humankind is indeed headed toward revolution. It began discreetly enough with a computer printer. But just as Gutenberg could not have foreseen the implications of his printing press, those who developed early 3D printers wouldn’t have predicted it: Scientists are now printing bone replacers.

Yes. Just as your home printer can dispense a thin layer of toner, a medical 3D printer can dispense thin layers of bone-like material. Stack up these layers, expose them to young bone cells, and voila! — you’ve got a custom-fit replacement bone. It’s already happening in Washington State.

The “Bone Printer at Washington State University

So-called bone printing was pioneered by Dr. Sushmita Bose at Washington State University. Her team recently printed a scaffolding of bonelike material and paired it with a medium of immature human bone cells. Within only a week, new bone grew along the structure. Ultimately, the printed bone dissolved and apparently caused no ill effects.

The aforementioned study, which was conducted at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in Pullman, was in vitro or in a Petri dish. However, follow-up in vivo studies with rabbits and rats are now underway. According to Bose, these new tests look promising. It’s likely that doctors will be able to print custom-fit biological materials within a few years.

About 3D Printing

Three-dimensional printing was first developed for manufacturing in the 1990s. In combination with computer aided design, it was an ideal way to produce an accurate prototype of an object for factory production. Instead of making a die-cast mold, a person would print layer upon layer of molding material directly from a computer file.

Now, after four years of research, Dr. Sushmita’s team has devised a favored formula of “printer ink for use as bone structure: Bose’s bone scaffolding material is made primarily of calcium phosphate, which is a material used in ceramics, but is made more than doubly strong with the addition of silicon and zinc. It is printed in a layer that’s 20 microns thick or about half the thickness of a human hair. Additional layers can be printed until the desired thickness is achieved. The material is baked at about 1250 degrees Fahrenheit until it becomes rigid.

With the developments from WSU, it’s conceivable that 3D printing will be used in printing such things as hip replacements and other orthopedic procedures; it’s already being used in dental work. As Bose explains, “If a doctor has a CT scan of a defect, we can convert it to a CAD file and make the scaffold according to the defect. The scaffold-and-dissolve technology could also be used to deliver medicine to osteoporosis patients’ bones.

3D Printing Reaches New Frontiers

Six months ago, a writer for The Economist predicted that 3D printing was “likely to disrupt every field it touches. Nonetheless, like many of us, the author limited the discussion of revolution to manufacturing, aerospace and other non-biological industries. Bose’s contribution to biomedical technology will lead to effects that were unforeseen only months ago.

Consider this: Bose’s team has also developed a ProMetal 3D printer for commercial use. It dispenses micro-droplets of binder into layers of powdered metal. Also this year, German researchers announced having perfected a method of printing blood vessels. It’s possible that doctors could someday “print replacement organs that perfectly match a patient’s biochemistry or contain medications that reduce the chance of rejection.

Combine the abilities the print metal, bones, organs and blood vessels, and it becomes feasible that we will indeed create – or become — cyborgs. We cannot see what the future holds, but we seem to be poised at the entrance to a whole new world.

Guest post by Jorie Henrickson.

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