Arrive at the hospital with a broken leg and have an artificial bone printed out by your bedside, which will help your real bone grow back faster. It’s way closer to happening than you might imagine.

It’s 2020 and you have severe gum disease. It’s bad enough to require surgery to replace lost bone. So your doctor pulls up a computer program, makes a few calculations, and prints out a fresh piece of bone (technically a bone-like powder) on a 3-D inkjet printer. The printed bone, which is used as a scaffolding to allow fresh cells to grow, is implanted in your mouth. Eventually, it harmlessly dissolves as new bone tissue emerges from your cells.

That 3-D printed bone procedure is closer to reality than you might think, and it won’t be limited to dental applications. One day, it could be used on spinal surgeries, too.

Researchers from Washington State University have already tested out the 3-D printing bone technology on rats and rabbits, with promising results. And in tests with fetal bone cells, new bone cells grew over the bone-like scaffold within a week, according to a just-released study.

If this happened today, a doctor might use a synthetic mesh-like material as a scaffolding to help grow new cells. Unlike the harmless printed bone, this material could have long-term implications—specifically, researchers suspect that it could impact digestive and chewing abilities.

The 3-D printer used in the tests wasn’t designed specifically for use with bone; in fact, the researchers bought it from a company that was making 3-D objects out of metal powder, explains Susmita Bose, a WSU professor and co-author of the study. Instead of metal, the WSU researchers use calcium phosphate (a bone-like material known for its biocompatibility), silica, and zinc oxide as a feedstock for the printer, which spits out a plastic liquid used as a binder over ultra-thin layers of powder to create a customized scaffold. The finished product is dried and then baked for two hours.

“A few years down the line, this [technology] could provide guided bone regeneration,” says Bose. The researcher is hesitant to provide a definitive timeline: “I am conservative when I talk about using synthetic materials in human applications because I do believe that it’s very difficult to mimic nature.” But she estimates that the technology could come to the market in two to four years.

As for hospitals equipped with 3-D printers? “It’s something I envision,” says Bose. Chances are, so do the people behind 3-D human organs and 3-D printed blood vessels.


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