3D Bioprinting Pen Grows Bone, Cartilage

Handheld BioPen filled with stem cells grows bone and cartilage to heal failing joints

by Michael MacRae
January 07, 2019

If the pen is mightier than the sword, how does it stack up against a scalpel?

An enterprising Australian biofabrication center known as BioFAB3D seeks to answer that question with a handheld cartilage-printing device they’ve dubbed the BioPen. Filled with bioink made of stem cells derived from a patient’s own fat, the BioPen is designed to create and surgically implant customized 3D scaffolds made of living, growing material into failing joints. Developers say it has the potential to accelerate the regeneration of functional bone and cartilage while improving patient outcomes and reducing procedure times.

BioFAB3D is Australia’s first biofabrication center embedded within a hospital, and is a multidisciplinary effort by engineers, biologists and surgeons at Australia’s University of Wollongong, St. Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and the University of Melbourne. They are currently scaling up their tests of the BioPen following successful preliminary results with sheep. More work is required before it will be ready for human testing, but results have been encouraging enough to suggest that day will come sooner rather than later.

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The device incorporates coaxial 3D bioprinting technology into a handheld stylus that enables surgeons to place the bioink layer by layer in a manner akin to pen-on-paper drawing. The ink layers form a 3D scaffold in the damaged bone, enabling the patient’s reproducing cells to rapidly strengthen the structure for a lasting repair, the researchers said. The ink itself comprises the patient’s stem cells along with specially selected growth factors within a biopolymer matrix. This layer is combined with a protective hydrogel outer layer in the print head to form the finished ink. As it’s dispensed, the ink is solidified by low-level UV radiation from the pen’s embedded source. According to the researchers, the undifferentiated stem cells within the finished structure are capable of evolving into nerve, bone or muscle cells that eventually develop natural functionality.

Other groups are pursuing similar breakthroughs. For example, a team at the University of Arizona recently received a five-year, $2-million Department of Defense grant supporting the development of 3D printed repairs for bone fractures. Led by John A. Szivek, a professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedics, the research team is focused on fixing very large bone fractures – the kind that are not likely to heal on their own. Their repair technology involves placing customized frames to fill the void created by missing bone fragments, then adding a 3D printed scaffolding made of calcium and adult stem cells. The goal is to provide a structure where the natural bone can grow back. The researchers are also hoping their stem-cell-based approach will yield scaffolding that grows with exercise, like real bones do, to help speed up the healing process.

In Australia, BioFab3D researchers opened their facility last year for an open performance of a loosely adapted revival of R.U.R., the 1920 drama by Czech playwright Karl Capek that coined the term “robot.” The idea behind the performance was to raise awareness of some of the prickly ethical issues of modern bioengineering technologies. Some critics felt the production bordered on “info dumping” without effectively communicating the sense of realism that might go into its real-world setting. But the group gets credit for opening dialogue as the BioPen shows early promise in filling the void between the respective curative capabilities of nature and current surgical knowhow.

The world of 3D bioprinting is moving rapidly but is still in the first act, with plenty of drama to come.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer based in Oregon.

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