It’s Not Sci-fi: 3D Printing Human Cartilage

Without cartilage, our joints won’t work. It is the connective tissue found between bones, in our airways, at the tips of our ribs, between vertebrae and in our noses and ears. Cartilage is essential and when damaged or diseased, it also causes significant pain. This is why cartilage restoration procedures like micro fracturing, cartilage tissue implants, and osteochondral autograft are common and continue to evolve.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could regenerate new cartilage in a lab? It sounds like the makings of a sci-fi novel, but scientists are working to do just that using 3D printing technology. In a report published by Nature Scientific Reports in March states, “Robotic-assisted 3D bio-printing [demonstrated here] is a viable option for focal cartilage defect restoration.”

Making a Case for Bio-Printing

So, what is bio-printing? Most people are familiar with 3D printing technology, which enables people to create three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model or computer-aided design file. 3D printing has been around since the early 1990s, ushering in a new era of rapid prototyping. 3D printing instantly gave product designers and engineers a quick and affordable way to build 3D. In the past five years, 3D printing has taken off outside of the business and engineering realm. Small-scale, low-cost printers are readily available to the degree that a growing number of elementary schools use them.

Bio-printing is a similar process to standard 3D printing. The technology and science is yet in its infancy but the possibilities appear limitless. The magazine defines bio-printing as: “an additive manufacturing process where biomaterials such as cells and growth factors are combined to create tissue-like structures that imitate natural tissues. The technology uses a material known as bioink to create these structures in a layer-by-layer manner. ”

Bio-printing is also being used currently in limited uses for research. Faux tumors and blood vessel networks have been “printed,” allowing scientists to study cancers.

On-Demand Cartilage Replacement? It’s Possible.

It may sound unusual, but producing tissue or cartilage immediately, or on-demand, right in the lab or a hospital, may soon be possible.

“Future developments in medical science, regenerative medicine and materials science may allow the repair of human body parts using 3D bioprinting techniques and serve as a basis for new therapies for tissue and organ regeneration,” concludes Nature Scientific Reports. 

As fascinating and exciting as 3D bio-printing is, time will tell how feasible 3D-printed cartilage is for routine techniques like joint restoration. MOSH is a state-of-the-art orthopedic hospital served by a team of physicians who pride themselves on knowing the latest advancements in their areas of specialty. Learn about the MOSH Joint Restoration Institute and current medical advancements that will benefit you.