July 15, 2015 | By Alec

While makers often like to talk about the 3D printing manufacturing revolution, no one can deny that 3D printers are actually being used to develop revolutionary medical applications at an amazing pace. While most of these actually involve 3D printed surgical models or titanium implants, a team of scientists in Guangzhou, China, is already taking a biomedical project to the next level. The team from the Southern Medical University, led by university president Huang Wenhua, has been very successful in 3D printing bones from bone powder and are now ready to enter an animal testing stage.

This revolutionary project can be found in the biomedical building of the university’s huge campus, where a high-precision 3D printer is steadily manufacturing solid bone, one layer at a time, without metal components. So far remarkable successes have been achieved by 3D printing a combination of very fine bone powder and a biological glue, to form complete animal bones. As Huang said, they are now ready to start testing the structural differences between 3D printed bones and actual ones. ‘Optimistically, similar 3D printed bones can be clinically used within 5-6 years, though there is still a long way to go,’ said Huang.

This development is riding a wave of 3D printing innovation in Guangzhou. Last April, one patient in the nearby Zhujiang Hospital underwent surgery for a resection of his liver. Due to a complex spread of cancer of the liver, 60% of the organ had to be removed, though his life was possibly saved by Huang and his team. They developed a set of 3D printed models of the patient’s (a mr. Wu) liver, complete with veins, arteries and the cancer itself. Careful preparation with this 3D printed set enabled surgeons to complete the surgery while only removing 42.8% of the liver. Mr. Wu came back for a check up this week, and was doing well.

However, 3D printing bone is an entirely different step and requires a far more high-tech setup. As Huang argued, 3D printing is ready for the next medical step. ‘It should become a substantive tool, and not just one for referencing,’ he said. Key is a careful biomechanical system and a suitable material. Together with professors OuYang Jun and Qiu Xiaozhong, they came up with a system of 3D printing a bone powder made from actual human or animal bones.

As Huang Wenhua explained, he began considering the use of this Allograft bone powder as a 3D printed material because it was actually made from creatures in the same category as it is used for, theoretically increasing the chances of biological compatibility (especially in comparison to metal implants). His team has therefore been experimenting with the 3D printing of goat and rabbit implants made from ground up goat and rabbit bones. ‘This is the concept of Allograft bone powder, after all, they are the same species so its biocompatibility is higher,’ he explained. Logically, this will mean finding large quantities of human bones to use for the manufacturing of implants for humans.

The 3D printing process of these materials themselves is a very precise matter. Miniscule layers of bone powder (around 0.1 mm) are 3D printed, followed by a layer of bio glue, followed by more powder, and again by glue. And so on. While it depends on what bone you’re 3D printing, this will require thousands of layers to form a very detailed structure.

While testing has so far been quite successful, print sizes cannot yet exceed 15 cm so far. ‘At the present in our goat and rabbit bone experiments, we have made some interesting progress and achieved results, but the main problem still exists. This is the matter of bio-compatibility – it’s not this rabbit's own bone powder after all – as the rejection phenomenon still exists. There are also some biomechanical issues, as the 3D printed bones are certainly not as strong as the original bones.’ The team leader explained. This is also one reason why 15 cm has been set as the limit, as longer structures lose sturdiness.

More human and animal tests are thus necessary, especially in the field of what levels of rigidity are safe for implants and how impacts will affect these bone structures. ‘We all know that exerting enormous pressure on the human tibia (through impact), it cause comminuted fractures or even the tibial plateau fractures. But exactly how much force causes such harm, those kind of questions aren’t answered yet.’ These biomechanical tests could lead to a quest for a better, more durable biological material in the near future.

In the meantime, Huang Wenhua’s team are also working on a number of other 3D printing experiments. Professor Qiu Xiaozhong is working with a science team from Canada to develop a number of active 3D printable materials, suitable for applications as growing liver and kidney cells on scaffolding and other organ and tissue innovations.

At the same time, Huang Wenhua and colleagues are looking into options for helping patients whose fingers have been completely severed or amputated. One option would be to 3D print out sections of the palm and to take compound flaps from a patient’s toes to replace missing fingers. In the long term, however, Huang Wenhua is dreaming about using stem cells to induce growth and then to 3D print them into organs. In short, we will doubtlessly be hearing a lot more from Huang Wenhua and the Southern Medical University in the near future.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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john wrote at 8/26/2015 7:10:50 PM:


Chris wrote at 8/10/2015 6:14:31 PM:

Is there are way to contact Huang Wenhua? My company makes particles that may be beneficial to his research.

Meredith Liguori wrote at 7/20/2015 3:17:27 PM:

Animal Testing is an outdated way to obtain information that is relevant to human populations. Fortunately, science is evolving and so too are the methods that can more accurately give scientists and regulators information on chemicals in our environment. The bad news is that, despite all the advancements, many scientists and companies still use animals in experiments. Animals do not react similarly to chemicals as humans do, so putting animals through painful and lethal tests is both scientifically and ethically questionable. One modern nonanimal test method includes using human cells from surgical leftovers to create 3D human skin in a petri dish and then testing chemicals on that. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act will reform the Toxic Substance Control Act by modernizing chemical testing and I personally support this bill because of that.

jc wrote at 7/15/2015 8:28:04 PM:

Very convenient to test on animals. Morons!

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