Need A New Knee? 3D Printed Cartilage, Bone, and Muscle is the Ticket

Need A New Knee? 3D Printed Cartilage, Bone, and Muscle is the Ticket

Need A New Knee? 3D Printed Cartilage, Bone, and Muscle is the Ticket

A team of scientists, led by Anthony Atala, at Wake Forest University has developed a 3D printer than can create sustainable biomedical material. This team that specializes in biomedical research, calls this process the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (“ITOP”).

It’s a 3D printer that can craft relatively simple tissues like cartilage into large complex shapes—like an infant’s ear. Using cartridges that are brimming with biodegradable plastic and human cells bound up in gel, this new kind of 3D printer builds complex chunks of growing muscle, cartilage, and even bone.

The aim of tissue engineering is to grow replacement tissues and organs in the lab to try to offset the shortage available for transplants. This may sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but Atala said it’s not that far into the future.

Scientists have been working with 3D printed organs for years. What’s new is that these creations are more stable than others made in the past. “The concept is, you would take a small piece of tissue from a patient — less than half the size of a postage stamp — then we can expand the cells outside the body and place them in the printer so we could print tissues for that same patient,” Atala said. It takes several weeks to grow the cells and a few hours to print them.

The military is funding the research in hopes of using it to heal battle injuries. “Our goal is to treat patients and our wounded warriors,” Atala said.

Wake Forest School of Medicine built this customized 3D printer, the only one in the country. It uses bio-gel and biodegradable materials and can scan a blueprint, then create whatever is ordered.

The genius of the ITOP process is the way it is able to structure the tissue that is being injected into the body. The 3D printer creates cells that are suspended in gel, which protects the cells during the binding process.  

The process prints out both tissue and a biodegradable plastic. The plastic, called polycaprolactone, allows the cells to maintain their structural integrity while they are binding to the body. Then, the plastic degrades away.  

“This is very important as the process allows the tissues we print to keep the structural integrity necessary to implant inside the body,” Atala says. “Basically we’re printing a thread of hard [plastic], then a bead of these soft cells intermittently. So: hard, soft, hard, soft.”

Prior to this process, the largest cell-tissue that could be printed were only about two times the size of a grain of salt. Now with the ITOP, simple tissues can be crafted into larger more complex shapes.

For now, Atala’s team is testing the long-term safety of ITOP’s approach as a run-up to developing tissues for human implantation.