3D Printing and Stem Cells Replace Bone

3D printed skull

Using 3D printing, researchers can create scaffolds to repair/replace bone tissue. Shown here: a 3D printed skull.
Photo Credit: © The University of Nottingham

A major cause for concern among the elderly, and those who love them, is bone degeneration. Particularly susceptible to malabsorption, osteoporosis, and nail fungus, which can eat away at the bone if left unaddressed, aging loved ones lean on their children and spouses for support.

In some cases, bone degeneration can be reversed. In most others, it cannot. In the latter, treatment options are limited, and often very painful.

One such treatment is replacement joint surgery. Replacement joint surgeries are performed to allow damaged tendons to heal, and to improve patients’ quality of life. Unfortunately, many replacement joints, including hips and knees, are constructed of metal. Too often, corrosion occurs, leading sometimes to blood poisoning. In many other cases, the body rejects the metal. When this occurs, patients must be rushed into emergency surgery to avoid further complications.

Fortunately, researchers have begun to hatch less painful, user-friendlier alternatives to joint replacement surgery, bone grafts and prostheses, using 3D printing

3D Printing and Stem Cells

Long before 3D printing was afforded global recognition, medical professionals were using it to test protocols for surgical instruments. This facilitated the implementation of many protocols used in modern medicine, including arthroscopic surgery.

Now, a new protocol may be in the works. Scientists in London announced over the summer that they might have discovered a means by which to regrow bone naturally, using a patient’s stem cells.

The team opened the theory to critique at the Summer Science Exhibition in London last July, where viewers caught a glimpse of a 3D printer capable of fusing stem cells with perfect scaffolds of missing bone matter. The team proposes that the technology will be operational within the decade.

Though complex, the process utilizes standard 3D imaging equipment to a similar end.

First, using thermal imaging technology, physicians scan the areas in question. They reverse the values of the image to exclude bone matter and feed the model into the computer. The result is a three-dimensional image of a scaffold that fits perfectly with the broken bone matter…just like a jigsaw puzzle.

The scaffold is then constructed layer-by-layer.

The finished product is a combination of three materials… a polymer, which makes the scaffold as strong as real bone, a softer substance, and a degenerative, called polylactic acid, and stem cells taken from the patient.

It may seem odd that a degenerative is used in the procedure, but it fills an important role. Once surgically implanted into the patient, the scaffold degenerates over a period of six months, replaced, cell-by-cell, with new, strong, healthy bone. Because the patient’s stem cells are fused with the polylactic acid at the outset, the new bone is made up of the patient’s own DNA. This effectively eliminates the chances that the body will reject the implant.

The implications that the technology would bring to bear upon the medical field would rival most modern advances in the same. It represents a push by those in the medical profession toward using the human body to regenerate itself, using technology as a bridge and not as an end. The scope of possibility brought to light by such strides is limitless, and will continue to transform modern medicine with each new idea.

About the Author

Kristie Collins in an editor at ConsumerMedReports, a public heath startup taking a closer look at health conditions and available treatments.

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