Just last week I wrote about advances in medical technology that were making print-out flesh and organs possible. Now they’re printing out bones. The tests at Insel hospital, Switzerland, were so successful that an exact printout replica of a human thumb bone has been created for the first time ever.
The technique starts from a 3D scan of a bone. If the original is missing due to an injury, then a mirror-image can be fashioned from surviving bones on the other side of the body. A 3D printer then sprays successive layers (formed from ticalcium phosphate and polylactic acid, mimicking natural materials) to build up a printout bone “scaffold,” which is a biodegradable and porous frame to grow the artificial bone into. Special cells from bone marrow–CD177 cells–are then used to coat the scaffolding, along with a “feed” gel, where they grow into osteoblasts, which are initial bone cells.
In the Swiss experiment, these soon-to-be-bones were then transplanted into mice, and the mouse’s own systems acted as a biological life-support while the bone “grew” over 15 weeks. There was even some evidence that blood vessels were being integrated into the growing artificial bone.
But according to the team leader Christian Weinand, there’s no need for a mouse surrogate when the technique is perfected–the person due to receive the bone can support it while it’s forming inside his own body. And the advantage over previous bone-growing techniques is that the new bone grows to a precisely controlled size and morphology. As Weinand points out, this means that in theory you “could do any bone…Now I can put spares in my pocket if I want.”
Combine this technique with stem-cell tissue printers and in the near future we may be able to put body scans and cell samples on file…and then printout replacement parts when we need them, after a disease or an accident.