Repairing cartilage damage with a little help from 3D printing
Roughly 151 million people worldwide suffer from osteoarthritis, meaning that they experience chronic pain, reduced mobility and limited quality of life. Attempts to repair cartilage thus far have offered limited functionality and only temporary pain reduction. The usual course of action is therefore to replace the entire joint, rather than repair the damaged cartilage. A team of researchers from the EU and Australia is however working on a promising alternative in which 3D printing plays a key role.
© Creative Mood #164687268, source: fotolia.com 2018
What makes the HydroZONES approach unique is the creation of a layered structure that mimics natures original design, and is tissue engineered using a bioprinting technology. Queensland University Technology in Australia is home to several experts in 3D printing, including Dietmar W. Hutmacher. When the project was first launched in 2011, it was a pioneer although others have since followed, seeing the great technological potential offered by bioprinting.
HydroZONES finished at the end of 2017, but not without progressing to large animal experiments, which set a new international standard for the pre-clinical testing of 3D printed cartilage-like constructs.
The scaffolds and bioinks developed use cell instructive biomaterials which are printed in combination with cells. Made using layer upon layer of bioink to replicate the different cartilage zones, the tissue engineered construct (TEC) is reinforced via a degradable fibrous network structure. The cell instructive biomaterials are designed to degrade after three to six months.
A new generation of bioprinting experts
The long-term results of HydroZONES are not limited to the tissue engineering of cartilage replacements. As the experts on 3D printing within the project, the role of the Queensland University of technology (QUT) was also to train researchers in this cutting-edge technology and in particular PhD students. We had a very intensive exchange of students and post-docs, says Hutmacher. He regards the project as having provided out of the ordinary education for a very talented cohort of students.
And in addition to the many young scientists now knowledgeable about 3D printing and its potential use in regenerative medicine, more are likely to follow: the project led to a dual Masters programme in biofabrication between the Queensland University Technology, and the universities of Utrecht in the Netherlands and Würzburg in Germany. This is also a great outcome of HydroZONES, says Hutmacher humbly.
The QUT did not receive EU funding for its involvement in the HydroZONES project, and instead was funded from grants of the Australias National Health and Medical Research Council. And this turned out to be a very worthwhile exercise for the QUT team. We are far away here in Australia from the Old World, so the research collaboration and to have the funding being part of such a large and prestigious consortium it has been very valuable.