Mar. 16, 2015 | By Alec

Speculation about the potential of medical applications of 3D bioprinting technology have largely remained exactly that: speculation. While it’s easy to imagine how 3D printed organs, blood vessels and skin tissue can save and improve lives, most of projects working on those technologies are still years away from completion. Optimistic deadlines usually refer to 2018 or so, meaning we will have to wait a while before seeing practical results in many cases.

But some projects are clearly further than others. Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which is based in Zurich, has just announced that their 3D printed nose implant technology is already ready for testing. While most 3D printed implants are titanium or another form of metal, these noses will even feature bio structures such as joint cartilage, so this is very exciting news. There’s just one caveat, and that is that human testing will have to wait a while. These nose implant tests will be completely conducted on sheep, beginning this year.

The technology behind these 3D printed nose implants is impressive and especially very quick. Developed by Marcy Zenobi-Wong and Matti Kesti, these implants can be completely printed in just 16 minutes and reportedly consist of cartilage from the patient itself as well as biopolymers that will be broken down and replaced by your own cells over time. The same concept is already being applied to ears.

Doctrinal student Kesti said that these implants can seriously improve the lives of people requiring reconstructive surgery of their face. Patients who are horribly maimed in, for instance, fires or car accidents can simply donate cells from his or her body (even from knees or fingers or even splinters from the shattered nose) which can be used to grow a new nose. Within a few months’ time, all the biopolymers are replaces with cartilage cells, and there’s very little chance of rejection by the body.

As professor Marcy Zenobi-Wong, who headed the research group, explains, bio-polymers are finally reaching a stage where these type of applications can be developed. Including acids extracted from seaweed or even molecules developed by the body itself, immune systems are very tolerant towards it. Combined into a 3D printable hydrogel with human cells, it has exactly the right consistency for 3D printing. ‘We have very little room for manoeuvre here. Because we need to be careful at all times that the cells are not damaged during the printing process’, she explains, noting that a large part of the research focused on finding and testing suitable biopolymers and processes of polymerisation.

The Swiss bioprinter in action.

While these nose implants are looking good, the same 3D printing principles can already be applied to other conditions as well. Biopolymer-based cartilage transplants can also be used to treat joint injuries (of the knees and ankles, for instance). Tests of that sort have already been done on young athletes, though not always with satisfactory results. However Zenobi-Wong was quick to add that their relative successes with biopolymer-based cartilage doesn’t mean that 3D printed organs are just around the corner. ‘While there’s great deal of hype around bioprinting at the moment, our research is a long way from offering things that are already being promised today,’ she said. ‘Our expertise is in cartilage, probably the easiest bodily tissue for bioprinting, but even today we know that this is anything but easy to print.’

Nonetheless, Zenobi-Wong is confident that 3D printed medical applications are the future. ‘Whether we will see bio 3D printers in hospitals in the future, however, is less of a technical question; instead, it depends on whether the technology will be accepted by doctors, patients and insurers,’ says Zenobi-Wong. Hopefully, these tests on sheep – which have been selected for their size and bodily complexity – will go a long way towards convincing those groups of the necessity of 3D printing. If all goes well, human tests will follow over the next few years.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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