A team of bioengineers has successfully 3D-printed tissues they believe doctors could one day implant into patients to help heal the knee, ankle, and elbow injuries that have ended the careers of countless athletes.
"I think this will be a powerful tool to help people with common sports injuries," Rice University researcher Sean Bittner said in a press release — though the impact of the group's work could extend far beyond the turf or pitch.
In a study published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia, Bittner and his fellow researchers from Rice University and the University of Maryland (UMD) detail their efforts to engineer an implant that would replicate the body's osteochondral tissue.
This is the tissue found at the end of long bones, and because its consistency changes — it transitions from cartilage to bone — bioengineers have had trouble mimicking it in the lab.
At least, they did until now. The Rice and UMD researchers used different materials to 3D print each part of their osteochondral tissue scaffold: a polymer mixture for the cartilage and a ceramic for the bone.
The researchers also added pores to the scaffold that the patient’s own cells and blood vessels could infiltrate. This would allow the implant to seamlessly merge with the recipient's natural biology, helping heal their injured bone and cartilage.
The next step for the researchers is figuring out how to print implants designed to perfectly fit specific patients.
And while athletes are more likely to be on the receiving end of these implants, Bittner points out that a pro sports contract isn't a prerequisite for an osteochondral injury — anybody can suffer from one, meaning we could all benefit if the team is able to perfect its engineered tissue.
READ MORE: 3D-printed tissues may keep athletes in action [Rice University]
More on healing bones: A New Implant Heals Broken Legs by Transforming Into Real Bone