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Inkjet printers can be used for bone grafting
Published on 19 Apr. 2011 1:27 AM IST
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Currently bone grafts can be performed with a small piece of bone, either from another part of the patient’s body or a cadaver, or with metallic inserts. However, there are drawbacks to each of these methods. Taking bone from another part of a patient’s body requires additional incisions, which means more pain and recovery time. It also presents the potential for complications such as infection or weakening of the bone. Bone from cadavers is generally considered less effective because it doesn’t develop as well as natural bone, and metallic inserts have to be replaced over time.
But an ingenious new method may present new possibilities for bone grafts and artificial bones, and surprisingly, it makes use of something many people have in their home: an inkjet printer.
Of course, this is not a typical inkjet printer -- it is heavily modified and quite a bit bigger. But the technology is quite similar to a conventional inkjet printer, and the process could potentially revolutionize bone graft surgery. Scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, are using their printer to create perfect replicas of damaged bones by “printing” new bones, layer by layer.
Inkjet-produced bones and rapid prototyping are part of a wider effort to use these technologies to make precise, custom-designed implants for medical use. Scientists at Manchester University in the United Kingdom are working on a technique to print artificial skin, which could similarly revolutionize the skin graft process. That technology may be ready for clinical trials in five years.
“Bio-inks” also exist in the form of proteins or individual cells arranged in patterns. These inks can be adapted for a variety of purposes. In December 2006, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University announced that they had used a custom-designed inkjet printer to develop bone and muscle cells from mice stem cells.
Stem cells have scientists particularly excited because they have the ability to grow into any type of cell, though they remain a contentious topic. (To learn about the controversy surrounding stem cells. The Carnegie Mellon team uses growth factors -- solutions that direct stem cells to grow into a specific type of cell -- in combination with adult mice stem cells and a material that binds to growth factors. Through continued research, combining stem cells with bio-inks may allow scientists to create not only “printed,” natural bones but also tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and other needed tissues. Describing the process to the “Daily Mail” Professor Jake Barralet from McGill University said, “The ‘paper’ in our printer is a thin bed of cement-like powder. The inkjet sprays the cement with an acid which reacts with it and goes hard. That deals with one layer. Then new layers of fresh powder are sprayed on top and the layers build up to the shape we need”.
The entire process takes only 10 minutes to print most grafts. What further differentiates this method from other types of grafts and artificial inserts is that the compounds in the printer contain the same building blocks found in human bones.

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