3D printing healing cells onto injured knees is nearly a reality

26 Aug 2015

Medical science has advanced significantly, but it’s when it gets involved with the likes of engineering or smart technology that things really speed up. Step forward the Biopen, a 3D-printing device to help cure us all of dodgy knees.

The Biopen is a weirdly wonderful gadget that a bunch of researchers in Australia are trying to get up and running.

It works in a very scientific way, however, it can be explained incredibly basically.

First, a doctor extracts some cells from an upcoming patient — in this case, someone suffering from a knee cartilage injury.

Then the team duplicates these cells over and over until they have enough to work with.

These incredibly fragile cells are then loaded into the Biopen, allowing the surgeon to ‘draw’ the cells, layer after layer, onto an injured knee.

The cells react to where they are, adapting and transforming into what they are supposed to turn into.

Biopen Cathal

Cathal O’Connell, 3D bioprinting researcher

I might be a bit hazy on the details, but it’s such an incredible contraption I tended to get a bit ahead of myself when talking with Cathal O’Connell, an Irishman working on the project, who made this helpful video on the device.

Research, 3D printing and lots of travel

The team operates out of St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, trekking hundreds of miles to a university to finesse their research.

It is this laborious, time-consuming undertaking that competitions like ‘Inspire Australia’, which the team bagged almost €10,000 from, really help to improve on.

It sounds like a small sum for such a technologically-advanced project, but every little helps for O’Connell.

“There could be some small equipment which that win will allow us to buy,” he tells me, highlighting a “really nice microscope” that the team is eyeing up.

“Because we are based in a hospital, we don’t have some of the small scientific equipment that other labs would have.

“At the moment when I need to do characterisation of materials, I have to do it in University of Wollongong, 1,000km away.”

The Biopen's drawing capability

Fragile cells, fragile progress

The project has been going for a number of years now, but only really started motoring in the past 10 months or so, around the time that O’Connell – a nanoscience graduate of Trinity College – got involved.

Currently in its third iteration, the Biopen – exclusively looking at knees for now – is a number of years away from release, although O’Connell is hopeful that human testing could be as soon as five years away.

After testing it in petri dishes, the team feel they have mastered a way to ensure cells survive the process, behave normally and differentiate and develop into the cells they need to be.

“We’ve go to the stage where we’re confident that we can do that,” he says.

“The cells are very fragile, it doesn’t take a lot to change their behaviour so they don’t behave normally. But we’ve managed to make them safe in a piece of work we’re about to submit for publication.”

The below image shows printed human stem cells (green cells show they are alive, red cells are dead), with more than 97pc of the cells still alive after one week in culture:

Biopen printed human cells

Onwards and upwards

The fourth iteration of the device is due out soon and, thanks to working directly with surgeons – providing live, continual feedback on how the device handles – it is improving fast.

“The fourth generation will be more sophisticated and it will give us more control for the printing process. That’s crucial for surgeons,” says O’Connell.

And it’s surgeons that came up with the idea, oddly enough. Thus the proximity to working with those who could one day rely on these devices has proved remarkably helpful.

O’Connell says this is coming from a clinical need, “not a researcher with a crackpot idea”. Surgeons want to use this in theatre.

This image shows the Biopen printing in action, the UV light causes the liquid bioink to gel, forming a matrix which resembles native cartilage:

Photo showing biopen printing in action, the UV light causes the liquid bioink to gel, forming a matrix which resembles native cartilage

What next? Let’s think this through

Of course, this all brings about some fairly important, conceptual questions, largely revolving around the topic of ‘is it right to do this?’

If we can draw on healing cells then what’s to stop us bioprinting organs or muscles, augmenting humanity and creating a world where the rich can buy bodily improvements while the rest of us waste away like, well, humans?

“This is very important,” explains O’Connell. “We wrote a book last year called 3D Bioprinting, Printing Parts for Bodies. It’s out there, available online, and one of the people that helped us write that book was a philosopher.

“We have a team of philosophers looking at and addressing these concerns, figuring out where we stand and how to regulate the technology.

“We want to work with the people who make the big decisions and involve the public in this discussion as early as possible.”

Orthopaedic surgeon, Prof Peter Choong, demonstrates the biopen concept on a human knee model

Prof Peter Choong demonstrates the Biopen

The Biopen has been entered into another crowdfunding competition on Thinkable.org, this time for a far larger prize, which is open to the public for voting right now.

Other projects O’Connell and his colleagues are working on include aiding the teaching of surgery, 3D-printing organs that replicate the make-up of real life examples, meaning surgical students don’t have to rely on cadavers, “which don’t come around too often”.

He has hopes, too, of many more advancements in future.

“This new technology of bioprinting has the potential to revolutionise medicine — one day, we want to use them to print organs and tissues for transplanation, using the patient’s own cells,” says O’Connell.

“Though printed functioning organs are probably many years away, other groundbreaking applications using bioprinting may be just around the corner.”

Main image via Shutterstock, body images via UOW

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic