A team of researchers from the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands have created a biofabrication method to create living tissues that replicate cartilage and could potentially be implanted to repair damaged joints.
Experienced by millions and millions across the world, arthritis is a physical disability that nearly one in ten people will have to battle during their lifetime. Arthritis acts by breaking down the cartilage tissue found in joints, which leads to stiffness and swelling, resulting in pain and discomfort for those who develop the condition.
However, at the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands, Professor Jos Malda and has research team have created a 3D printable bioink that could allow damaged joints to heal themselves. The bioprinted tissues can be implanted into a living joint, where it would eventually mature into a new tissue and behave like healthy cartilage. This research is being conducted as a part of a project called 3D-JOINT.
Although biomaterials like stem cells have been adapted for 3D printing, there have been difficulties in ensuring that the proper conditions for cellular building are met. While hydrogels are a viable material for delivering living tissue, they are also unable to withstand the mechanical load that some tissues face once implanted into the body.
Strengthening Hydrogel to Transform it into Replacement Cartilage
And so, the Dutch research team is experimenting with different additive materials that will strengthen the hydrogel to the point where it acts as replacement cartilage. The researchers are using a 3D printing process called melt electrowriting, which combines melted polycaprolactone with an electrical field to create fibers that are as thin as a strand of hair.
These microfibers are being used to create scaffolding that can be combined with the hydrogel. “The combination of the hydrogel with the fibres acts in synergy, increasing the strength of the composite over 50 times while still allowing the cells to generate extracellular matrix and mature into a cartilage-like tissue,” Malda said.
The researchers are currently working to expand their methodology to develop larger constructs, and will also experiment with different materials to combine bone and cartilage tissue replacements. The end-goal of their work is to eventually 3D print a complete and functional joint.
As the University Medical Centre Utrecht research has carried on for a couple of years, it’s yet another instance of how bioprinting is advancing to the point where it will soon be safe and compatible for human implants.