Surgeons might soon be able to design customized implants on-site and at the time of surgery, thanks to a handheld "bio pen" developed in the labs of the University of Wollongong (UOW), which works similar to 3D printing methods.
The pen delivers cell material inside a biopolymer such as alginate, a seaweed extract, protected by a second, outer layer of gel material. The two layers of gel are combined in the pen head as it is extruded onto the bone surface and the surgeon "draws" with the ink to fill in the damaged bone section.
Developed by researchers from the UOW-headquartered Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), the device could give surgeons greater control over where the materials are deposited while also reducing the time the patient is in surgery by delivering live cells and growth factors directly to the site of injury, accelerating the regeneration of functional bone and cartilage.
The BioPen will help build on recent work by ACES researchers where they were able to grow new knee cartilage from stem cells on 3D-printed scaffolds to treat cancers, osteoarthritis and traumatic injury.
A low powered ultraviolet light source is fixed to the device that solidifies the inks during dispensing, providing protection for the embedded cells while they are built up layer-by-layer to construct a 3D scaffold in the wound site.
Once the cells are drawn onto the surgery site they will multiply, become differentiated into nerve cells, muscle cells or bone cells and will eventually turn from individual cells into a thriving community of cells in the form of a functioning tissue, such as nerves, or a muscle.
"The combination of materials science and next-generation fabrication technology is creating opportunities that can only be executed through effective collaborations such as this," ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace said in a statement. "What’s more, advances in 3D printing are enabling further hardware innovations in a rapid manner."
The university said the device could also be seeded with growth factors or other drugs to assist regrowth and recovery, while the hand-held design allows for precision in theatre and ease of transportation.
"This type of treatment may be suitable for repairing acutely damaged bone and cartilage, for example from sporting or motor vehicle injuries," Professor Peter Choong, Director of Orthopaedics at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and the Sir Hugh Devine Professor of Surgery at the University of Melbourne, said in a statement. "Professor Wallace’s research team brings together the science of stem cells and polymer chemistry to help surgeons design and personalize solutions for reconstructing bone and joint defects in real time."