This ceramic ink can 3D-print bones directly into a patient’s body. Here’s how

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • But now scientists have invented a way to 3D-print bone tissue inside the body.
  • Ceramic material that mimics bone structure is mixed with living cells.
  • Its inventors say it will reduce suffering in patients and speed up recovery times.

A new 3D printing process which can be used inside the human body is offering hope to trauma and cancer patients who need bone replacements, reducing pain and speeding up recovery time.

The treatment of bone cancers can lead to sections of bone being removed and accident victims may require extensive bone repairs. Up to now, 3D bone printing has involved producing material outside the patient’s body.

But now a new technique developed at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, offers the prospect of doctors being able to create new bone tissue exactly where it is needed during a surgical operation.

By blending a ceramic material that mimics bone structure with the patient’s own cells in a 3D printing “ink”, scientists have potentially found a way to create new bone material inside the body, replacing removed sections of bone and encouraging existing bones to knit with the new artificial bone.

Faster recovery and less pain

“It’s really the first example of integrating ceramic materials that emulate many aspects of native bone with live cells,” said Associate Professor Kristopher Kilian, a member of the team that developed the new technology.

image of the 3D printing technology in action
3D printing new bone tissue with living cells will speed patients’ recovery. Image: University of New South Wales

“This really opens up the opportunity where you may be able to actually directly print a patient’s bone within a cavity,” he added.

“During surgery, if they have some bone resected for disease, or if they have a tumour taken out, then we can actually take scans of that bone and put that on to the printer and then directly print within a cavity of a patient.”

The technique uses a light, portable 3D printer which can be taken into the operating room. Previous methods relied on laboratory-based printers which were unable to operate at room temperature and needed toxic chemicals to sterilize the new bone material.

“That’s going to speed things up with respect to surgery time and it’s going to enable a lot of reduction in current suffering and also, perhaps, hopefully save lots of lives,” said Professor Kilian. Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

Precision medicine

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 report on emerging technologies highlighted the potential of using scans, like those used to create the 3D printer replacement bone tissue, to conduct virtual clinical trials of new treatments and clinical procedures without harming patients.

The Forum’s Precision Medicine Programme aims to realize the benefits of precision medicine for society, including the half of the world’s population that currently has no access to precision medicine techniques.

Working with leaders in the field, the programme includes a project – Leapfrogging with Precision Medicine – which is designed to help nations which currently don’t have access to these techniques to introduce precision medicine into their healthcare systems.

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