April 28, 2014

Causing severe pain and loss of mobility in joints such as knees and fingers, Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder in the world. In Western populations it is one of the most frequent causes of pain, loss of function and disability in adults. Statistics shows Osteoarthritis occurs in the majority of people by 65 years of age and in about 80% of those aged over 75 years. In the US it is second only to ischaemic heart disease as a cause of work disability in men over 50 years of age.

Although some treatments can help relieve arthritis symptoms, there is no cure. Many patients with severe arthritis ultimately require a joint replacement.

In a significant step toward reducing the heavy toll of osteoarthritis around the world, scientists have created an innovative 3D printing approach to create replacement cartilage for patients with osteoarthritis or soldiers with battlefield injuries.

"Osteoarthritis has a severe impact on quality of life, and there is an urgent need to understand the origin of the disease and develop effective treatments" said Rocky Tuan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "We hope that the methods we're developing will really make a difference, both in the study of the disease and, ultimately, in treatments for people with cartilage degeneration or joint injuries."

"Tissue engineering and regeneration represents one of the brightest future prospects in medical research." -Dr. Rocky Tuan, chief, NIAMS Cartilage Biology and Orthopaedics Branch

Creating artificial cartilage requires three main elements: stem cells, biological factors to make the cells grow into cartilage, and a scaffold to give the tissue its shape. Tuan and his team sought to manufacture replacement cartilage derived from the patient's own stem cells that could be added into the joint. Their 3D printer extrudes thin layers of stem cells embedded in a solution that retains its shape and provides growth factors.

"We essentially speed up the development process by giving the cells everything they need, while creating a scaffold to give the tissue the exact shape and structure that we want," said Tuan.

Cartilage under a microscope. Credit: By Fanny CASTETS (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The ultimate goal is to refine this technique so that doctors can print new cartilage right where it's needed in the patient's body using a catheter.

Although this is not the first time researchers have experimented with 3D printing approaches for cartilage, Tuan's method has the distinct advantage of using visible light as opposed to UV light, which can be harmful to living cells.

Tuan's lab made another huge advancement by creating the first "tissue-on-a-chip" replica of the bone-cartilage interface using the 3D printing method, which may one day serve as a test-bed for researchers to learn about how osteoarthritis develops and develop new drugs. The chip currently uses 96 units of tissue that are 4x4x8 millimeters.

As a next step, the team is working to combine their 3-D printing method with a nanofiber spinning technique they developed previously. They hope combining the two methods will provide a more robust scaffold and allow them to create artificial cartilage that even more closely resembles natural cartilage.


Posted in 3D Printing Technology

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