In a study published in Biofabrication in the month of March, scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), gave detailed descriptions about their experiments with the BioPen, a hand-held 3D printer that creates cartilage tissue using stem cells. Its primary use will be to regrow cartilage in damaged joints. The pen was created by the director of orthopedics at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dr Peter Choong and ACES Director Gordon Wallace. The team has been thoroughly working on it for the past three years.

The pen will be used in the operating room during the time of operation since the shape of the cartilage needs to be as accurate as possible. Cartilage surgery usually involves removing damaged tissue, so surgeons cannot print the tissue beforehand. The pen will allow surgeons to sculpt the cartilage tissue as they draw. The surgeons would also be able to deposit tissue material via the two channels and the pen’s titanium tip to reach crevices that preprinted material would not reach. The scientists also concluded that their device will cost less than normal 3D printers used for bioprinting.

The crux of the pen is in the ink. The ink is made from a mixture of adipose stem cells and hydrogel. The gel will be released from the tip and hardened by UV light. Scientists control the release of the gel using foot pedals. The stem cells are extracted from human fat cells using a routine surgical procedure. The pen will repair damaged tissue by combing the patient’s stem cells with existing tissue. Hence it will increase the surgery success rate by preventing tissue rejection.

The study states that the cells drawn using the pen have shown new cartilage growth. The scientists claim that stem cells are 97% effective.

There are however some limitations with BioPen. According to the study, the heat dissipating from the surgeon’s hands and the heat of machinery and room temperature could affect the flow of the ink. Also, there could be inconsistencies in the pen’s pressure expulsion system.

The team is looking to develop version two of BioPen which will feature heat management system, a mechanical ink expulsion system to improve expulsion consistency. Wallace said that next step for the pen includes improving the ink’s fluidness and making the pen more comfortable and ergonomic.

The device is still in development phase and is yet to be approved for medical use. It shows the capabilities of 3D technology in the field of medicine.

Other 3D Printing Gadgets

This is not the first device to make use of 3D technology to print cartilage tissue.

Neocart

Neocart, which uses regenerative medicinal technology to recreate cartilage tissue, uses small amount of patient’s own cartilage tissue extracted from their knee via a minor non-invasive procedure known as arthroscopy. The tissue sample is placed under special conditions that promote cell growth and tissue formation. The tissue can be later trimmed to better fit the cavity.

Creopop

It seems that BioPen’s idea was directly inspired from Creopop. Creopop was launched as an Indiegogo project back in 2014. It allows users to build in “space”, which means that it allows 3D printing using a photopolymer gel and UV light to harden the gel.

The pen costs less than $150 and includes a number of drawing tips, ink cartridges, and a USB charging cable. Creopop also ships with a drawing pad, to draw the 3D models on. Creopop is lightweight and comfortable to use.

3Doodler

The latest iteration of 3Doodler, the 3Doodler Create, is more refined and provides a smoother experience of printing 3D models. It will cost around $100 and includes a cleaning kit, power adapter and color strands. It uses molten plastic ink that hardens when it comes into contact with air. It was first released as a Kickstarter project back in 2013.

Future Of 3D Printing

3D printing has enabled tissues, organs and skeletal systems to be constructed. Cancer cells and tumors are also being printed to better study their effects and possibly find the best cure to fight against them. Many surgical tools such as scalpels, forceps and clamps are being made using 3D technology, at a lower cost and using environmental friendly materials.

There are many other examples of 3D technology being used in the field of medicine. The biggest obstacle remains for making efficient 3D models using 3D modeling software. Simple objects can be made using 3D technology but complex organs such as heart or brain still remain elusive at this stage.

But as technology has progressed over the years, we will see enough modeling software to  render complex organs such as brain or heart and health officials will hopefully make the most out of this exciting technology.