3D-printing ligaments

Materials World magazine
16 Oct 2018

Biomedical engineers from the University of Utah, USA, has developed a method where human cells can be 3D-printed to produce tissue such as ligaments and tendons. This discovery will have a great impact on patient recovery.

The aim is to be able to replace a badly damaged ligament tendon or ruptured disc with printed replacement tissue implanted in the damaged area, research published in the Journal of Tissue Engineering, Part C: Methods showed.

It took two years to research and develop the printing method where they utilise the patient’s own stem cells from body fat to print on a hydrogel layer forming a tendon or ligament. Later in the process this would grow in vitro in a culture before it could be implanted into the body. Although, this process sounds very straightforward it is not that simple. The cells making up the tendon or ligament must gradually transform to bone cells allowing the tissue to attach to the bone.

‘This is a technique in a very controlled manner to create a pattern and organizations of cells that you couldn’t create with previous technologies. It allows us to very specifically put cells where we want them,’ said Robby Bowles, biomedical engineering assistant professor and co-author of the paper, from the University of Utah.

As of now, the replacement tissue can come from either another part of the patient’s body or from a cadaver, which potentially may be of poor quality. Spinal discs cannot be harvested because of their complicated structures with bony interfaces, meaning these will have to be recreated to make a successful transplant possible.

The research is currently designed for the creation of ligaments, tendons and spinal discs. But according to Bowles, the research can be ‘literally used for any type of tissue engineering application.’