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3D-Printed Implants May Save Athletes From Career-Ending Injuries In The Future

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Printing of artificial tissues to help the recuperation of bone and cartilage resulting from sports-related injuries is the focus of a new proof-of-concept study.

This research by scientists from Rice University and the University of Maryland highlights the successful engineering of scaffolds mimicking the characteristics of osteochondral tissues, which are primarily composed of articular cartilage and a subchondral bone region.

The study aims to know if a 3D-printed structure can copy the gradual transition from smooth, compressible cartilage to the hard bone at the end of long bones.

Bioscientists produced 3D-printed materials that are suitable for implantation.

Damaged Osteochondral Tissues

Damaged osteochondral tissue can result in limited mobility, pain, and poor quality of life. Osteochondral tissues are often damaged by degenerative diseases, trauma, and sports-related injuries to the knees, ankles, and elbows.

Osteochondral injuries such as small cracks or pieces of the bone that break off can be painful and, in most cases, can stop the career of athletes. Likewise, osteochondral injuries can also lead to disabling arthritis.

Injuries And Osteochondral Tissue Engineering

Knee injuries can be treated at home, but severe cases would require surgical intervention.

Among the most common knee injuries include the anterior cruciate ligament injuries or ACL, fractures, dislocation, meniscal tears, bursitis, tendonitis, tendon tears, and collateral ligament injuries.

Athletes are susceptible to knee injuries, but work-related knee injuries are also highly common. Among these include slip and fall accidents, overexertion, and strain while lifting objects.

Recent developments in 3D printing technology research have resulted in various scaffold designs and techniques for osteochondral tissue engineering. However, the gradient and porosity of the cartilage-to-bone made it difficult to reproduce in the laboratory.

Through 3D-printed tissues, athletes and people affected by common sports-related injuries can continue to function.

"Athletes are disproportionately affected by these injuries, but they can affect everybody," according to Sean Bittner, a bioengineering graduate student at Rice University and one of the lead researchers.

The team led by Bittner and bioengineer Antonios Mikos, the study's lead author, 3D-printed custom mixtures of polymer for the cartilage and ceramic for the bone. They also added pores to the scaffold to allow the patient's own cells and blood vessels to merge seamlessly into the implant.

"There's porosity included so vasculature can grow in from the native bone. We don't have to fabricate the blood vessels ourselves," Bittner said.

The next step for the research is to figure out how to print an osteochondral implant that will fit perfectly for a specific patient and allow the porous implant to grow and mesh with the bone and cartilage.

The study is published in the Acta Biomaterialia journal.

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