Rethinking Healthcare

Now printing in 3D: bones

Posting in Science

By modifying a ProMetal 3D printer, researchers have created bones from ceramic powder. These custom implants will soon be available for surgeries to repair injuries.

What’s in Jack Skellington’s Christmas sack? Perhaps some bones from an inkjet printer.

Soon, orthopedists and dentists will be creating custom implants on a commercially available 3D printer. The boney material can also be used to deliver medicine for osteoporosis.

Paired with actual bone in the body, the 3-dimensional bone-like material acts as a scaffold for new bone to grow on. Later on, it’ll dissolve – with “no apparent ill effects” – leaving just healthy new bone.

"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,” says study coauthor Susmita Bose of Washington State University.

The team spent a year repurposing a commercially available ProMetal 3D printer normally used for printing metal items.

"You can use the bone-like ceramic powder as a feed material and it can make whatever you draw on the computer," Bose says.

Following a computer’s directions, an inkjet sprays a plastic binder over a bed of loose powder in thin layers (about 20 microns, or half the width of hair), according to a news release.

The process is repeated layer by layer until completed. Then the scaffold is dried, cleaned, and baked for 2 hours at 2282 degrees, BBC explains.

After just a week in a medium with immature human bone cells, the scaffold begins to support a network of new bone cells.

Here’s a video of the printer at work.

The team discovered that adding silicon and zinc more than doubles the strength of the main ceramic powder material, calcium phosphate.

They also tested their bones in rats and rabbits, with promising results. Custom ordered replacement bone tissue for humans could be available within years.

"Ten to 20 years down the line, physicians and surgeons should be able to use these bone scaffolds along with some bone growth factors,” Bose says, “whether it is for jaw bone fixation or spinal fusion fixation.”

The work was published in Dental Materials.

Image: Washington State University

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure