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Doctors may soon rebuild patients’ knees using new 3D-printed bioglass

The printing of biomaterials is the next horizon in 3D printing, with researchers working with materials designed to replace blood vessels, skin and more. Now, 3D-printed cartilage can be added to that growing list thanks to a team of researchers from the Imperial College London and the University of Milano-Bicohcca, reports 3ders.

The researchers are developing a new bioglass material comprised only of silica and a polymer called polycaprolactone. When combined, the material has the properties of cartilage — it is flexible yet strong, durable and resilient. Not only does it have the properties of cartilage, it also is suitable for use in a 3D printer, allowing researchers to print the biomaterial in a variety of shapes engineered to meet a patient’s unique anatomy.

Researchers want to use the material to produce a cartilage-like replacement for damaged spines, joints and more. It is much easier and cheaper to produce than the current generation of biomaterials, which must be grown in the laboratory. It also is much closer to natural tissue than other artificial joint alternatives, which often are a thousand times stiffer than normal cartilage.

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“While they (artifical joints) work very well, the promise of a novel class of bearing material that is close to nature and can be 3D printed is really exciting,” said co-lead researcher Justin Cobb. “… we may be able to restore flexibility and comfort to stiff joints and spines without using stiff metal and all its associated problems.”

The team is focusing on the material’s medical applications, developing first a bioglass cartilage disc implant for those suffering from back pain. They plan to develop another version of the bioglass that could function as a cartilage replacement for knee and arm joints. Another proposed application of the material is its use as a scaffolding that will encourage the regrowth of cells in damaged joints. Because it is a biopolymer, it could be engineered to degrade over time, allowing new cartilage to grow and replace the bioglass.