3D printed bones created from cheap, synthetic material

A technique in which 3D printed synthetic bone has been successfuly used to treat broken spines and skulls in animals could one day be adapted to fix human injuries.

Although the material, called hyperelastic bone, is synthetic it’s still able to regenerate bone without the need for added growth factors.

It is also flexible, strong and can be easily and rapidly deployed in the operating room.

The material was developed by a team of scientists from Northwestern University who describe it as "quite astounding" and say that human trials could begin within the next five years.

The team found that when used in spinal injuries in rodents and to mend the skull of a monkey, the hyperelastic bone, made mostly of a ceramic and polymer, quickly integrated with surrounding tissue and began regenerating bone.

It swiftly mended bones in the spines of the rats and healed the monkey's skull in just four weeks, with no signs of infection or other side effects, the scientists said.

"Another unique property... is that it's highly porous and absorbent - and this is important for cell and tissue integration," said Northwestern University's Ramille Shah, who co-led the work.

"Even when it’s deformed or squeezed into a space, it still maintains high porosity, and this is also very important for blood vessels to infiltrate the scaffold so that it can further support cell and tissue growth."

Other types of bone grafts currently in development are often too brittle to be shaped and handled by surgeons, and risk being rejected once inside the body, or may be too expensive or difficult to manufacture for widespread use.

Adam Jakus, a co-researcher on the project said that the new material would avoid these issues.

"It's purely synthetic, very cheap and very easy to make," he said. "It can be packaged, shipped and stored very nicely."

Shah said that she hoped the low cost would also allow the technology to be used in patients in developing countries.

"There are a lot of pediatric patients, especially in third-world countries, who are born with orthopedic or maxillofacial (face and jaw bone) defects," she said. "And because the hyperelastic bone is scalable at a low cost, [we hope] it would be accessible to those types of patients."

In August, 3D printing was used to create plug-in blood vessels and man-made skin, thanks to 'organ-on-a-chip' technology - microengineered structures that support the growth of human tissue. 

Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina also showed how the technology could print human flesh in order to replace injured or diseased tissue. 

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