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Assistant professor of biomedical engineering Robby Bowles led the research team on this groundbreaking 3D printing project.University of Utah
Updates in 3D printing technology allowed medical researchers to print something rarely attempted -- printing ligaments and tendons.
The innovation came from biomedical engineers from the University of Utah. The new process could give patients with badly damaged tendons, ligaments, or ruptured disks faster recovery times or new, implanted tissues entirely.
The researchers published their results in a recent issue of the Journal of Tissue Engineering, Part C: Methods.
This process took the Utah team two years to research and develop. The engineers took stem cells from a patient's body fat and printed them onto a layer of hydrogel. That hydrogel facilitates cell growth in vitro in a culture, forming either a ligament or tendon in the process. That new tissue is then implanted in the injured or affected area.
Creating an intricate solution for intricate body parts
Successfully printing connective tissue has eluded most biomedical engineers. Ligaments and tendons have a variety of cells in different patterns because of their proximity to both bone and muscle.
"It will allow patients to receive replacement tissues without additional surgeries and without having to harvest tissue from other sites, which has its own source of problems," said University of Utah biomedical engineering assistant professor Robby Bowles. Bowles co-authored the paper along with former U biomedical engineering master's student, David Ede.
This novel process gives researchers more control over how the ligaments are formed, more than other biomedically developed 3D printed parts.
"This is a technique in a very controlled manner to create a pattern and organizations of cells that you couldn't create with previous technologies," Bowles said of the printing process. "It allows us to very specifically put cells where we want them."
To get that level of control and specificity, the team partnered with a Utah-based company called Carterra, Inc. to customize a solution. Carterra helped the researchers create a special printhead that was attached to a 3D printer normally used to print antibodies used in oncology.
Printing solutions to complex injuries
Ligament tears and ruptured discs aren't just painful injuries; they're hard to treat. Replacement tissues for those needing is often harvested from elsewhere on a patient's body or from a cadaver. However, cadaver ligaments run a higher risk of being rejected by the surrounding tissues or of being poor quality and ineffective.
Spinal discs have bony interfaces that have to be recreated to succeed in a transplant situation. And anything 3D printed would have to duplicate the intricate structure of human ligaments.
The Utah researchers feel confident their custom printer can reduce the complications involved with a transplant and speed up a patient's healing process.
As of this writing, the researchers reported the biggest use would be for treating ligaments, tendons and injured spinal disks. However, Bowles admitted in a press statement that "it literally could be used for any type of tissue engineering application."
The team's next step is to apply this innovative 3D printing process to entire organs -- something they've been wanting to try out for years. They're also interested in applying the custom printhead to other 3D printers to see how the performance varies.