Handheld 3D-printing pen for custom cartilage implants succeeds in sheep trial


A revolutionary tool for printing live cells in situ during surgery moves closer to human trials, writes Andrew Masterson.


Orthopaedic surgeon Claudia di Bella demonstrates the use of the Biopen.
Orthopaedic surgeon Claudia di Bella demonstrates the use of the Biopen.
Supplied

A handheld pen that produces a bio-ink containing a patient’s own cells could one day be used to repair knees damaged by osteoarthritis.

The design of the Biopen.
The design of the Biopen.
Supplied

In a pilot study written up in The Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, a team led by Gordon Wallace from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science reports the 3D-printing pen produced “exceptional” results when tested on sheep.

The Biopen is effectively a new tool available to surgeons.

In the study, cells drawn from each sheep were mixed with a specially formulated bio-ink. During surgery, the device was then used to create a precise, bespoke implant that replaces cartilage lost through osteoarthritis.

The ink functions to protect the cells during the operation, and then supports them until they become fully integrated into the joint. Because they are derived from patient – or animal – being treated, there is no risk of rejection and no need for immunosuppressive drugs.

The research team – which included regular Cosmos contributor Cathal O’Connell – tested the device on eight osteoarthritic sheep. Each had one knee treated by the Biopen, and another using existing methods.

“The results were exceptional, certainly better than expected,” said team member Claudia di Bella.

“We found that the Biopen performed markedly better in terms of quality and characteristics of new cartilage formation.”

The pen was originally designed by orthopaedic surgeon Peter Choong from St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. It was later put through a rigorous redesign process by the team at the Centre of Excellence.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time a handheld bioprinter has been used in surgery and the results are very promising,” says Wallace.

“This brings us a step closer to human clinical trials.”

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Andrew Masterson is an author and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.
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