Already the 3D printing process is used to make dental implants, windpipes as well as medical stents. And as Cosmos reported last year, that is just the beginning. The technique may soon help solve the shortage of transplant organs.
The potential to “guide” the regrowth and reconnection of the loose ends of an injured nerve would be a huge boon.
Peripheral nerve injuries are relatively common, with doctors performing more than than 200,000 nerve repair procedures each year in the United States alone, according to the MIT Technology Review.
The most common surgery entails using nerve tissue taken from another spot in the body to fill the gap. But this requires an additional surgery to harvest that tissue, and can lead to chronic pain, sensory loss, or other problems at the site from which it was cut. An alternative approach involves using an artificial scaffold, generally tube-shaped, that sits between the two ends of the broken nerve and serves as a conduit for regeneration, often with the help of biochemical cues known to prompt nerve growth.
With 3D printing technology, neurosurgeons could design and make more complicated guide shapes, Michael McAlpine, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says.
To demonstrate the new technique, McAlpine and his collaborators, including neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers, showed in rats that they could regenerate the original Y-shaped structure after a 10-millimetre piece of the sciatic nerve—including the point where it branches—had been cut out.
“The exciting next step would be to implant these guides in humans rather than rats,” McAlpine said. In cases where a nerve is unavailable for scanning, McAlpine said there could someday be a “library” of scanned nerves from other people or cadavers that hospitals could use to create closely matched 3D printed guides for patients.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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