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3D printing pen lets surgeons print implants during procedures

Science is bringing us closer and closer to creation in the biblical sense. In the latest technological breakthrough that allows doctors to play deity more acutely than before, a new 3D printing pen has been prototyped to allow users to draw human stem cells with “extremely high survival rates.” Making use of hydrogel bio-ink, the pen is meant to give surgeons the ability to create customizable cartilage implants mid-surgery — because when it comes to the human body, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

The pen, the result of a collaboration between the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) researchers and orthopedic surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, currently yields a cell survival rate of an impressive 97 percent, and further extends the realm of possibility for 3D printing in medicine. While bioprinters have previously been utilized to create everything from skin to parts of the eye, this may be the first time that a handheld pen gives rise to organic material capable of use in a surgical setting.

“The development of this type of technology is only possible with interactions between scientists and clinicians — clinicians to identify the problem and scientists to develop a solution,” Peter Choong, Director of Orthopedics at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and one of the concept’s developers, said in a statement. Along with ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace, the duo developed a small, lightweight, and ergonomically designed pen that uses a low light source to solidify the bioink as it prints, rendering the drawn product almost instantaneously usable.

“The biopen project highlights both the challenges and exciting opportunities in multidisciplinary research. When we get it right we can make extraordinary progress at a rapid rate,” Professor Wallace said.

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If proven widely applicable, the pen will allow doctors an unprecedented amount of control when it comes to hand-crafting cartilage that can be implanted directly into the human body. This is particularly important as surgeons are often unsure as to the exact size and shape of a necessary implant until the surgery is underway — but with this new device, physicians would be able to create a unique solution on the spot.

A second prototype is currently undergoing testing for clinical trials, and may herald a new age in 3D printing and medicine.