Oct 2, 2015 | By Tess

Breaking an arm or a leg seems like a relatively commonplace injury, one that is quite easily mended in most cases, and that leaves no lasting traces. In most breaks or fractures, however, metal pins or screws are used to keep the injured bones in place during the healing and are often left inside the patient’s body, sometimes with side effects as serious as infections, or arthritis. Recently, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have been working on finding a way to use 3D printing technology in order to better repair broken and fractured bones without the use of metal pins and screws and they have potentially found a solution.

Engineering professor Prashant Kumpta and his team at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a type of putty material made from magnesium and iron alloys that can be additively manufactured to a specific shape to fit the bone fracture in question. Essentially, the putty can be 3D printed into scaffold-type structures, custom designed for the break in question, and then can be implanted at the bone fracture or break to help with the healing. What is particular about the putty is that it functions to help repair the bone, while simultaneously dissolving as the bone heals, leaving no traces once the bone is fixed.

The putty, made from a mixture of a proprietary, water-based liquid, and a white powder made of calcium phosphate and other, still secret, ingredients, has been a main focus for University of Pittsburgh researchers, especially those seeking to find new and innovative applications for 3D printing in the medical world. As Mr. Kumpta says of additive manufacturing, “In the biomedical area, there’s lots to be done.” The researchers are hoping to capitalize on 3D printing’s affordable, immediate, and customizable nature in making medical advancements and take advantage of the obvious manufacturing benefits.

Funding for Kumpta’s degradable putty came from various sources: the project received $4 million from the U.S. Department of Defence, $1.2 million from the National Institute of Health, and $500,000 from the state of Pennsylvania. For the research surrounding the putty and 3D printing, the University of Pittsburgh received $3 million from the National Science Foundation, and $295,000 from America Makes, an organization meant to promote and support collaboration between government, industry, and universities.

The biggest challenge in developing the putty, Kumpta explains, was creating it from ingredients and materials that wouldn’t harm the body in any way, and would actively help the healing and growth of new bone cells. On top of these two requisites as well, the putty had to be made in such a way that it would dissolve at the right time and not before the new bone cells hardened.

Initial testing of the putty was done on rabbits and rats, where Kumpta found that for the rabbits it took about 8 weeks for new bone cells to grow and for the putty to dissolve.

The next step for the putty’s development is to get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Kumpta is confident this will not be a problem, as all the ingredients making up the putty are already approved by the FDA. For now, the University of Pittsburgh has patented the putty and has licensed it to an external company through which pre-clinical trials are being conducted.

In line with this, researchers are also looking into using magnesium alloys to 3D print the scaffolds. As magnesium can be absorbed by the human body and already possesses similar properties to bone, it would be an ideal material to use in the healing of broken bones. Excitingly, the researchers have found a way to determine the rate at which the magnesium alloy would dissolve based on the broken bone.

While magnesium has yet to be approved by the FDA and might consequently be more difficult to commercialise, Kumpta believes its use could be extremely beneficial, especially for patients with more serious fractures or bone breaks. The magnesium alloy scaffolds, paired with the putty could mean that serious breaks could be handled more efficiently, without follow-up operations to remove the metal plates currently used to heal serious fractures.

Again, Kumpta is hopeful and confident that his research and developments will be approved and will benefit the victims of broken and fractured bones in the near future. He says, “The future is promising, but it might take some time, as all good things do.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications





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