Cross-section of a 3D printed adult human femur. [Ramille Shah]
Cross-section of a 3D printed adult human femur. [Ramille Shah]

Engineers at Northwestern University say they have developed a 3D printable ink that produces a synthetic bone implant that rapidly induces bone regeneration and growth. This hyperelastic “bone” material, whose shape can be customized, one day could be especially useful for the treatment of bone defects in children, according to the team.

Bone implantation surgery is never an easy process, but it is particularly painful and complicated for children. With both adults and children, bone is often harvested from elsewhere in the body to replace the missing bone, which can lead to other complications and pain. Metallic implants are sometimes used, but this is not a permanent fix for growing children.

“Adults have more options when it comes to implants,” said Ramille N. Shah, Ph.D., who led the research. “Pediatric patients do not. If you give them a permanent implant, you have to do more surgeries in the future as they grow. They might face years of difficulty.”

Dr. Shah and her team aim to change the nature of bone implants, and they particularly want to help pediatric patients. Dr. Shah is an assistant professor of materials science and engineering in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and of surgery in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The new study (“Hyperelastic “Bone”: A Highly Versatile, Growth Factor–Free, Osteoregenerative, Scalable, and Surgically Friendly Biomaterial”), evaluating the material with human stem cells and within animal models, is published online in Science Translational Medicine. Adam E. Jakus, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Shah's laboratory, is the paper's first author.

Dr. Shah's 3D printed biomaterial is a mix of hydroxyapatite (a calcium mineral found naturally in human bone) and a biocompatible, biodegradable polymer that is used in many medical applications, including sutures. Her hyperelastic bone material shows promise in in vivo animal models; this success lies in the printed structure's unique properties. It's majority hydroxyapatite, yet hyperelastic, robust, and porous at the nano, micro, and macro levels.

“Porosity is huge when it comes to tissue regeneration, because you want cells and blood vessels to infiltrate the scaffold,” Dr. Shah said. “Our 3D structure has different levels of porosity that are advantageous for its physical and biological properties.”

While hydroxyapatite has been proven to induce bone regeneration, it is also notoriously tricky to work with. Clinical products that use hydroxyapatite or other calcium phosphate ceramics are hard and brittle. To compensate for that, previous researchers created structures composed mostly of polymers, but this shields the activity of the bioceramic.

Dr. Shah's bone biomaterial, however, is 90% by weight percent hydroxyapatite and just 10% by weight percent polymer yet still maintains its elasticity because of the way its structure is designed and printed. The high concentration of hydroxyapatite creates an environment that induces rapid bone regeneration.

“Cells can sense the hydroxyapatite and respond to its bioactivity,” noted Dr. Shah. “When you put stem cells on our scaffolds, they turn into bone cells and start to up-regulate their expression of bone specific genes. This is in the absence of any other osteo-inducing substances. It's just the interaction between the cells and the material itself.”

That's not to say that other substances couldn't be combined into the ink. Because the 3D printing process is performed at room temperature, Shah's team was able to incorporate other elements, such as antibiotics, into the ink.

“We can incorporate antibiotics to reduce the possibility of infection after surgery,” she continued Shah. “We also can combine the ink with different types of growth factors, if needed, to further enhance regeneration. It's really a multifunctional material.”

One of the biggest advantages, however, is that the end product can be customized to the patient. In traditional bone transplant surgeries, the bone, after it's taken from another part of the body, has to be shaped and molded to fit exactly the area where it is needed. Physicians would be able to scan the patient's body and 3D print a personalized product using Dr. Shah's synthetic material. Alternatively, due to its mechanical properties, the biomaterial can also be easily trimmed and cut to size and shape during a procedure. Not only is this faster, but it is also less painful compared to using autograft material.

Dr. Shah imagines that hospitals may one day have 3D printers, where they can print customized implants while the patient waits.

“The turnaround time for an implant that's specialized for a customer could be within 24 hours,” she pointed out. “That could change the world of craniofacial and orthopedic surgery, and, I hope, will improve patient outcomes.”

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