Printing Better Bones: First Step Toward Revolutionary Change In Bone-grafting Technology

Using a modified ink-jet printer, a McGill University researcher is producing three-dimensional bioceramic “bones” that could one day change the way reconstructive surgery is performed.

McGill professor Jake Barralet, Canada Research Chair in Osteoinductive Biomaterials, Charles Doillon of Université Laval and Uwe Gbureck of the Department for Functional Materials in Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Würzburg, Bavaria, have taken advantage of the ink-jet printer’s ability to print layer upon layer to produce three-dimensional porous materials using the same building blocks as real bone. Their results are published in the journal Advanced Materials.

“Rather than printing on paper, we’re printing on a bed of cement powder using an acid instead of ink, which reacts with the cement to print whatever pattern we want,” explained Dr. Barralet. “It’s similar to a CT scan, in that the image is created one layer at a time. The result is three-dimensional.”

Printers are already used for modeling purposes, said Dr. Barralet, but this is the first time anyone has used a modified printer to produce artificial bone made of calcium phosphate at room temperature using the minerals brushite and hydroxyapatite. Because the process takes place at room temperature, the researchers are able to make custom-shaped grafts from materials that decompose at low temperatures.

“Before you can get bone, you need a blood supply and because this control over 3D geometry allows us to control blood vessel growth, we can more closely approximate real bone,” Dr. Barralet added.

The process could eventually be used in reconstructive surgery or other types of bone repair and could be much more effective and less risky than harvesting sections of bone from elsewhere in the body to use in bone grafting, he said. “We’re a long way from seeing this method used in a hospital setting, but it’s an important first step toward a revolutionary change in bone-grafting technology.”

Written from a news release by McGill University.