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Australian scientists have successfully used a 3D printer to create new bone-like material containing living cells.

Scientists from the University of NSW have developed a ceramic-based ink (based on calcium phosphate) which could allow surgeons in the future to 3D-print bone parts, complete with living cells, to repair damaged bones.

The new technique is known as ‘ceramic omnidirectional bioprinting in cell-suspensions’ (COBICS). It enabling the printing of bone-like structures that harden in a matter of minutes when placed in water.

3D printed ball – Pixabay

Significant advance

Dr Iman Roohanim from UNSW’s School of Chemistry, said while the idea of 3D-printing bone-mimicking structures isn’t new, this is the first time the material can be created at room temperature – complete with living cells – and without harsh chemicals or radiation.

‘This is a unique technology that can produce structures that closely mimic bone tissue,’ he said.

‘It could be used in clinical applications where there is a large demand for in situ repair of bone defects such as those caused by trauma, cancer, or where a big chunk of tissue is resected.’

Associate Professor Kristopher Kilian, who co-developed the breakthrough technology with Dr Roohanim, says the fact that living cells can be part of the 3D-printed structure, together with its portability, make it a big advance on current state-of-the-art technology.

Up until now, making a piece of bone-like material to repair bone tissue of a patient has involved first going into a laboratory to fabricate the structures using high-temperature furnaces and toxic chemicals.

‘This produces a dry material that is then brought into a clinical setting or in a laboratory, where they wash it profusely and then add living cells to it,’ said Professor Kilian.

‘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,’ he said.

‘There are currently no technologies that can do that directly.’

3D printing technology is advancing fast – Pixabay

Special ink

In a research paper published in Advanced Functional Materials, the authors describe how they developed the special ink in a microgel matrix with living cells.

‘The ink takes advantage of a setting mechanism through the local nanocrystallisation of its components in aqueous environments, converting the inorganic ink to mechanically interlocked bone apatite nanocrystals,’ said Dr Roohani.

‘In other words, it forms a structure that is chemically similar to bone-building blocks. The ink is formulated in such a way that the conversion is quick, non-toxic in a biological environment and it only initiates when ink is exposed to the body fluids, providing an ample working time for the end-user, for example, surgeons.’

He said when the ink is combined with a collagenous substance containing living cells, it enables in-situ fabrication of bone-like tissues which may be suitable for bone tissue engineering applications, disease modelling, drug screening, and in-situ reconstruction of bone and osteochondral defects.

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Keen interest

Already there’s been keen interest from surgeons and medical technology manufacturers. Associate Professor Kilian thinks while it’s early days, this new bone-printing process could open up a whole new way of treating and repairing bone tissue.

‘This advance really paves the way for numerous opportunities that we believe could prove transformational – from using the ink to create bone in the lab for disease modelling, as a bioactive material for dental restoration, to direct bone reconstruction in a patient,’ he said.

‘I imagine a day where a patient needing a bone graft can walk into a clinic where the anatomical structure of their bone is imaged, translated to a 3D printer, and directly printed into the cavity with their own cells.

‘This has the potential to radically change current practice, reducing patient suffering and ultimately saving lives,’ said Associate Professor Kilian.

In the future, if the early promise of the research holds up, 3D printers might become permanent fixtures in operating theatres.