May 12, 2016 | By Alec

3D bioprinting is something of a holy grail in the 3D printing world. Though practical applications are still a few years away, 3D printed implantable blood vessels, skin tissue and even complete organs are not impossible anymore. The challenge, however, is in growing sustainable tissue that can live in lab environments and mimic the exact functions of human tissue. Fortunately, a team of researchers from the Imperial College London and the University of Milano-Bicocca might have found a way to deal with these challenges as they have successfully 3D printed a new bio-glass material that mimics all the properties of cartilage, but is far easier to produce than lab-grown alternatives.

The development is a significant one because cartilage is an absolutely crucial tissue that is easily damaged, but not so easy to repair. While some scientists have been working on implantable lab-grown cartilage, this bio-glass solution might be a far easier implantation option. What’s more, it can be formulated to exhibit different properties and might even encourage the growth of cartilage cells in human joints.

The 3D printed bio-glass structures consist of little more than silica and a polymer called polycaprolactone. When mixed, it displays all the properties people look for in cartilage: it's strong, flexible, durable and resilient. Most importantly, it is biodegradable, biocompatible and shows self-healing properties. It is also easy to 3D print in ink form. As the British scientists explain, these properties make it a perfect treatment option for patients with damaged intervertebral discs, for instance. These damaged discs impede movement and can cause a lot of pain.

Professor Julian Jones, one of the developers of the bio-glass from the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, argued that this 3D printing solution has been under development for a long time. “Bio-glass has been around since the 1960’s, originally developed around the time of the Vietnam War to help heal bones of veterans, which were damaged in conflict. Our research shows that a new flexible version of this material could be used as cartilage-like material,” he says on his university's website. “Patients will readily attest to loss of mobility that is associated with degraded cartilage and the lengths they will go to try and alleviate often excruciating pain. We still have a long way to go before this technology reaches patients, but we’ve made some important steps in the right direction to move this technology towards the marketplace.”

Various applications of the glass are currently being explored, with the help of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. In particular, the researchers are aiming to set up lab trials, develop surgical methods for working with the implants and are in talks with industrial partners. “This novel formulation and method of manufacture will allow Julian and his team to develop the next generation of biomaterials. Today, the best performing artificial joints are more than a thousand times stiffer than normal cartilage. While they work very well, the promise of a novel class of bearing material that is close to nature and can be 3D printed is really exciting,” said Professor Justin Cobb, who is co-leading the research. “Using Julian's technology platform we may be able to restore flexibility and comfort to stiff joints and spines without using stiff metal and all its associated problems.”

Professor Laura Cipolla from University of Milano-Bicocca was also very optimistic about the material’s bio properties. “Based on our background on the chemical modification of bio- and nanostructured materials, proteins, and carbohydrates, we designed a new chemical approach in order to force the organic component polycaprolactone to stay together in a stable way with the inorganic component silica,” she said.

Right now, the team is looking into several applications. Synthetic bio-glass cartilage disc implants are top of their list, and could become a very useful alternative to the metal and plastic devices that are currently used. Another option would be to create joint cartilage replacement for knees and arms. They are also looking into 3D printable scaffolding that could be implanted in joints and encourage cell regrowth in the body. As the glass is biodegradable, these scaffolds could simply degrade over time and leave the new cartilage in its place.

This interesting innovation has the potential to give a huge boost to 3D bioprinting efforts. Unfortunately, it will take a while before other studies can benefit from 3D printed bio-glass, as the research team predicts it can take up to ten years for their solutions to reach the market. The team is however confident about the innovation’s chances and have already patented the technology with Imperial College’s technology commercialization partner.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



Maybe you also like:


rodney wrote at 3/22/2017 3:08:06 AM:

this would be better than titanium in neck fusion, as the neck spine moves a lot, i have three titanium implants in my neck and i am out of work now.

Jose Oliveira wrote at 5/17/2016 4:08:07 PM:

I need that!!!!! I have lost almost all the cartilage in my knees due to sports (voleyball and Tae Kwon Do mostly). This is the holly grail for many people with cartilage damage around the world....... I hope it comes to Market SOON!!!!!!!!!

Leave a comment:

Your Name:


Subscribe us to Feeds twitter facebook   

About provides the latest news about 3D printing technology and 3D printers. We are now seven years old and have around 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

News Archive