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Need A New Knee? Penn State Researchers May Soon Be Able To Print You One

Dr. Ibrahim Ozbolat's lab in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences is full of 3D printers for creating cartilage implants.
Min Xian
Dr. Ibrahim Ozbolat's lab in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences is full of 3D printers for creating cartilage implants.

Researchers at Penn State's Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences are taking 3D printing from a novelty to an orthopedic tool. The team is developing a method of 3D printing with cartilage cells to create implants for joints such as the knee and elbow.

On a visit to his lab, Associate Professor of engineering Ibrahim Ozbolat showed several of his lab's bioprinters to physicians from Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

“This was custom-designed by a company for us," said Ozbolat, pointing out a printer. "It has four nozzles, for different materials. It’s like printing with ink.”

The "ink" used is cow cells. Ozbolat is betting that if printing tissue implants is possible with these, it’s possible with human cells. 

Aman Dhawan is an orthopedic sports surgeon with the Penn State Hershey Bone and Joint Institute. During the lab visit, he said the 3D printing method for cartilage implants has potential to provide the first longterm solution for these injuries which often effect athletes and manual laborers.

“In 2016, you think about it," said Dhawan. "You have a cavity in your tooth, or a defect in your tooth, you think nothing of going to the dentist and getting a filling, but, yet, if we have a hole in the cartilage of our knee, we have no solution for that.”

Physicians are currently replacing this cartilage with gels, but gel degrades over time. According to Obzbolat, this is where 3D-printed implants come in.

“With the 3D printing approach we have the capability of making things in a more precise manner," said Ozbolat. "We can control the shape easily. For example, you need a square one, you need a circle one, you need whatever shape you request from us we can make it.”

This design flexibility is essential to printing cartilage, which has a complex architecture that Ozbolat says 3D printing can accommodate which manual techniques cannot.

“An article of cartilage has some compartments, like zones: The superficial zone, middle zone and the deep zone," said Ozbolat. "When you look at this organization, it’s not really something you can make manually."

The process is relatively quick too. The team can print tissue pieces in less than ten minutes and mature them in just a few weeks.

Ozbolat authored a paper on the method with others from Iowa State University, University of Iowa and Harvard University, which was published on nature.com in June. However, Ozbolat says these implants have a long road of human trials ahead of them before 3D printers reach the operating room.

“Everything in the paper is just prototype," said Ozbolat. "This is just basic research, just showing that everything is doable, with simple settings.”

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Becca DeGregorio