Scientists are developing 3D-printed artificial tissues that may help heal bone and cartilage typically damaged in sports-related injuries.
The researchers at Rice University in the US engineered scaffolds that replicate the physical characteristics of osteochondral tissue — hard bone beneath a compressible layer of cartilage that appears as the smooth surface on the ends of long bones.
Injuries to these bones can be painful and often stop athletes’ careers in their tracks.
Osteochondral injuries can also lead to disabling arthritis, according to the study published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia.
The gradient nature of cartilage-into-bone and its porosity have made it difficult to reproduce in the lab, but the scientists used 3D printing to fabricate what they believe will eventually be a suitable material for implantation.
“Athletes are disproportionately affected by these injuries, but they can affect everybody,” said Sean Bittner, a graduate student at Rice University.
“I think this will be a powerful tool to help people with common sports injuries,” Bittner said.
The key is mimicking tissue that turns gradually from cartilage at the surface to bone underneath.
The researchers, including those from the University of Maryland in the US, printed a scaffold with custom mixtures of a polymer for the former and a ceramic for the latter with imbedded pores.
This would allow the patient’s own cells and blood vessels to infiltrate the implant, eventually allowing it to become part of the natural bone and cartilage.
“For the most part, the composition will be the same from patient to patient,” Bittner said.
“There is porosity included so vasculature can grow in from the native bone. We do not have to fabricate the blood vessels ourselves,” he said.
In the future, the project will involve figuring out how to print an osteochondral implant that perfectly fits the patient and allows the porous implant to grow into and knit with the bone and cartilage.