The development is a significant one because cartilage is an absolutely crucial tissue that is easily damaged, but not so easy to repair. While some scientists have been working on implantable lab-grown cartilage, this bio-glass solution might be a far easier implantation option. What’s more, it can be formulated to exhibit different properties and might even encourage the growth of cartilage cells in human joints.
The 3D printed bio-glass structures consist of little more than silica and a polymer called polycaprolactone. When mixed, it displays all the properties people look for in cartilage: it’s strong, flexible, durable and resilient. Most importantly, it is biodegradable, biocompatible and shows self-healing properties. It is also easy to 3D print in ink form. As the British scientists explain, these properties make it a perfect treatment option for patients with damaged intervertebral discs, for instance. These damaged discs impede movement and can cause a lot of pain.
Professor Julian Jones, one of thedevelopers of the bio-glass from the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, argued that this 3D printing solution has been under development for a long time. “Bio-glass has been around since the 1960’s, originally developed around the time of the Vietnam War to help heal bones of veterans, which were damaged in conflict. Our research shows that a new flexible version of this material could be used as cartilage-like material,” he says on his university’s website. “Patients will readily attest to loss of mobility that is associated with degraded cartilage and the lengths they will go to try and alleviate often excruciating pain. We still have a long way to go before this technology reaches patients, but we’ve made some important steps in the right direction to move this technology towards the marketplace.”
Various applications of the glass are currently being explored, with the help of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. In particular, the researchers are aiming to set up lab trials, develop surgical methods for working with the implants and are in talks with industrial partners. “This novel formulation and method of manufacture will allow Julian and his team to develop the next generation of biomaterials. Today, the best performing artificial joints are more than a thousand times stiffer than normal cartilage. While they work very well, the promise of a novel class of bearing material that is close to nature and can be 3D printed is really exciting,” said Professor Justin Cobb, who is co-leading the research. “Using Julian’s technology platform we may be able to restore flexibility and comfort to stiff joints and spines without using stiff metal and all its associated problems.”
Professor Laura Cipolla from University of Milano-Bicocca was also very optimistic about the material’s bio properties. “Based on our background on the chemical modification of bio- and nanostructured materials, proteins, and carbohydrates, we designed a new chemical approach in order to force the organic component polycaprolactone to stay together in a stable way with the inorganic component
Right now, the team is looking into several applications. Synthetic bio-glass cartilage disc implants are top of their list, and could become a very useful alternative to the metal and plastic devices that are currently used. Another option would be to create joint cartilage replacement for knees and arms. They are also looking into 3D printable scaffolding that could be implanted in joints and encourage cell regrowth in the body. As the glass is biodegradable, these scaffolds could simply degrade over time and leave the new cartilage in its place.
This interesting innovation has the potential to give a huge boost to 3D bioprinting efforts. Unfortunately, it will take a while before other studies can benefit from 3D printed bio-glass, as the research team predicts it can take up to ten years for their solutions to reach the market. The team is however confident about the innovation’s chances and have already patented the technology with Imperial College’s technology commercialization partner.