Australian surgeons hope to prevent the onset of osteoarthritis in patients by using 3D technology to print live cells to repair damage to bones, muscles, tendons and tissue in organs.
The Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery based at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne has developed the Biopen, a 3D printer pen filled with stem cell “ink” which has successfully been tested on sheep to repair knee injuries.
Orthopaedic surgeon Claudia Di Bella from St Vincent’s Hospital said the treatment involved stem cells being taken from the patient before surgery and put inside the pen in special ink cartridges.
“[The pen] prints that in a material which is called hydrogel that allows your cells not just to survive but also increase in numbers and then make certain types of tissues, and in our case cartilage,” she said.
“The goal would be to try and repair certain injuries like cartilage injuries that at the moment are impossible to repair completely.”
The idea is to treat young people, including athletes, early to slow down or prevent the onset of osteoarthritis, which is a huge cost to the health system.
In the sheep trials, the technology had no complications and was easy to use, Dr Di Bella said.
“The type of cartilage we were able to create was much superior compared to the other standard techniques we tried in the same sheep, which are the ones used normally in humans,” she said.
“It would be a fairly [easy], almost stock-standard surgical operation that we do already with a new instrument that is fairly easy to use.”
The work is being done as part of a collaborative effort involving St Vincent’s, the University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.
The process of commercialising the technology was already underway and Dr Di Bella said it was hoped human trials could be started within a year.
“It is a big game changer not simply for athletes, because obviously it would be [good] for pain relief and getting back to the normal activities,” Dr Di Bella said.
“In the big scheme of things if we decrease the number of patients that have osteoarthritis later in life, that would incredibly affect the health expenditure of society.”