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Fabricating artificial bone implants is one of the more promising 3D Printing Opportunities in the medical field. Implants are used to repair and rebuild the jaw, knees, spine, hips, joints, and other bones.
One technique in use is the autologous implant where bone tissue is taken from another bone of a patient. However, this method is limited by the amount of bone tissue that is available. There are also medical risks associated with using bone from the iliac crest (on the pelvic bone) which is the most common site used for taking bone. These risks include pelvic instability, nerve damage, and chronic pain.
Implants can also be taken from a donor, most often from one who has died. Donated bone presents a number of difficulties. It must be made safe for use through testing and screening against disease. There is also the possibility of implant rejection by the patient.
The limitations and complications associated with the use of real bone implants make artificial bone implants a viable substitute. 3D printing of bone can further increase the viability of artificial bone implants because it can directly use input from medical imaging technology to precisely fabricate a bone implant for a patient.
A prototype 3D bone printer has recently been developed by Japanese researchers at the medical technology firm NEXT 21 K.K. and the University of Tokyo’s brain science institute RIKEN. They have developed a 3D printer that generates custom made artificial bone with an accuracy of up to 0.1 mm. The artificial bones are made from calcium phosphate which is found in human bone and teeth. The biological similarity enables real bone to readily grow around and fuse with the printed bone.
The artificial bone is ideally suited for bone implants where bone may have been lost from cancer or injury. It will also be used to help broken bones mend properly. The precision with which the bone part can be made, combined with its affinity for real bone will speed up recovery time. The bone printer may eventually find use in the repair of deformities.
If Japan's Pharmaceutical and Medical Devices Agency approves the printer, the team hopes to have the device commercially available by 2015. After use in Japan, they plan to release it to other Asian countries.
There is a clear need for this type of technology in other parts of the world as well. The Japanese have demonstrated that 3D bone printing is not technology of the future but can be done right now. This field is in its infancy and is set to take off. In the years to come, orthopedics professionals will have to be well versed in 3D printing technology in order to remain competitive in their field.