Monthly Archives: November 2012

Contraception and HIV protection in cloth*

Researchers at the University of Washington have published a study in the peer-reviewed, open access journal, Public Library of Science ONE (PLoS ONE), concerning their work to produce fibres that can deliver both contraceptives and anti-HIV drugs, according to a Nov. 30, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

The only way to protect against HIV and unintended pregnancy today is the condom. It’s an effective technology, but not appropriate or popular in all situations.

A University of Washington team has developed a versatile platform to simultaneously offer contraception and prevent HIV. Electrically spun cloth with nanometer-sized fibers can dissolve to release drugs, providing a platform for cheap, discrete and reversible protection.

Hannah Hickey’s  Nov. 30, 2012 University of Washington news release, which originated the news item, provides details,

“Our dream is to create a product women can use to protect themselves from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy,” said corresponding author Kim Woodrow, a UW assistant professor of bioengineering. “We have the drugs to do that. It’s really about delivering them in a way that makes them more potent, and allows a woman to want to use it.”

Electrospinning uses an electric field to catapult a charged fluid jet through air to create very fine, nanometer-scale fibers. The fibers can be manipulated to control the material’s solubility, strength and even geometry. Because of this versatility, fibers may be better at delivering medicine than existing technologies such as gels, tablets or pills. No high temperatures are involved, so the method is suitable for heat-sensitive molecules. The fabric can also incorporate large molecules, such as proteins and antibodies, that are hard to deliver through other methods.

They first dissolved polymers approved by the Food and Drug Administration and antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV to create a gooey solution that passes through a syringe. As the stream encounters the electric field it stretches to create thin fibers measuring 100 to several thousand nanometers that whip through the air and eventually stick to a collecting plate (one nanometer is about one 25-millionth of an inch). The final material is a stretchy fabric that can physically block sperm or release chemical contraceptives and antivirals.

“This method allows controlled release of multiple compounds,” Ball said. “We were able to tune the fibers to have different release properties.”

One of the fabrics they made dissolves within minutes, potentially offering users immediate, discrete protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Another dissolves gradually over a few days, providing an option for sustained delivery, more like the birth-control pill,  to provide contraception and guard against HIV.

The fabric could incorporate many fibers to guard against many different sexually transmitted infections, or include more than one anti-HIV drug to protect against drug-resistant strains (and discourage drug-resistant strains from emerging). Mixed fibers could be designed to release drugs at different times to increase their potency, like the prime-boost method used in vaccines.

The electrospun cloth could be inserted directly in the body or be used as a coating on vaginal rings or other products.

Electrospinning has existed for decades, but it’s only recently been automated to make it practical for applications such as filtration and tissue engineering. This is the first study to use nanofibers for vaginal drug delivery.

While this technology is more discrete than a condom, and potentially more versatile than pills or plastic or rubber devices, researchers say there is no single right answer.

The citation and link to the article,

Drug-Eluting Fibers for HIV-1 Inhibition and Contraception by Cameron Ball, Emily Krogstad, Thanyanan Chaowanachan, Kim A. Woodrow (2012) PLoS ONE 7(11): e49792. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049792

Last month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded these researchers a $1M grant to pursue this work.

*ETA Dec.2.12: I erroneously used the word clothing in the headline. It’s now been corrected to ‘cloth’.

Danish nanotechnology-enabled product database

It’s called the Nanodatabase according to the Nov. 30, 2012 news item on Nanowerk (Note: I have removed a link),

The Danish Consumer Council and the Danish Ecological Council has in cooperation with DTU Environment developed a database, which help consumers identify more than 1,200 products that may contain nanomaterials. The Nanodatabase gives consumers a choice. [emphasis mine]

”Most consumers have no idea if there are nanomaterials or not in the goods they’re buying. And they have no way of finding out, so that they can avoid the products if they are worried about the potentially harmful effects” says Claus Jørgensen, Senior Advisor at the Danish Consumer Council.

This is why the Danish Ecological Council and the Danish Consumer Council in cooperation with experts from DTU [Technical University of Denmark] Environment has decided to launch the Nanodatabase. Now consumers can search the database to see if a certain product contains nanomaterials or is marketed as ‘nano’. This way the consumers can choose if they want the nanomaterials or not.

The database contains more than 1,200 products which contain nanomaterials or are marketed using the nano-claim. [emphasis mine]

“Until we know for sure that the use of nanotechnology is safe and the legislation is in place, we need a label that can help consumers make informed choices”, says Lone Mikkelsen [chemical expert from the Danish Ecological Council].

The two organisations hope that the English version of the database will help consumers in other countries. The hope is that consumers will report products that contain ‘nano’ or claim to be a nano product to the database.

This project reminds me of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and their consumer products inventory. I don’t believe they’re adding to that inventory any moreas the March 10, 2011 news release announcing over 1300 nanotechnology-enabled products (as claimed by manufacturers) in the inventory appears to have been PEN’s last. I think they, like the Danish Consumer Council and the Danish Ecological Council, were hoping to raise awareness.

University of Waterloo researchers use 2.5M (virtual) neurons to simulate a brain

I hinted about some related work at the University of Waterloo earlier this week in my Nov. 26, 2012 posting (Existential risk) about a proposed centre at the University of Cambridge which would be tasked with examining possible risks associated with ‘ultra intelligent machines’.  Today (Science (magazine) published an article about SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network) [behind a paywall])and its ability to solve simple arithmetic and perform other tasks as well.

Ed Yong writing for Nature magazine (Simulated brain scores top test marks, Nov. 29, 2012) offers this description,

Spaun sees a series of digits: 1 2 3; 5 6 7; 3 4 ?. Its neurons fire, and it calculates the next logical number in the sequence. It scrawls out a 5, in legible if messy writing.

This is an unremarkable feat for a human, but Spaun is actually a simulated brain. It contains2.5 millionvirtual neurons — many fewer than the 86 billion in the average human head, but enough to recognize lists of numbers, do simple arithmetic and solve reasoning problems.

Here’s a video demonstration, from the University of Waterloo’s Nengo Neural Simulator home page,

The University of Waterloo’s Nov. 29, 2012 news release offers more technical detail,

… The model captures biological details of each neuron, including which neurotransmitters are used, how voltages are generated in the cell, and how they communicate. Spaun uses this network of neurons to process visual images in order to control an arm that draws Spaun’s answers to perceptual, cognitive and motor tasks. …

“This is the first model that begins to get at how our brains can perform a wide variety of tasks in a flexible manner—how the brain coordinates the flow of information between different areas to exhibit complex behaviour,” said Professor Chris Eliasmith, Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Waterloo. He is Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, and professor in Waterloo’s Department of Philosophy and Department of Systems Design Engineering.

Unlike other large brain models, Spaun can perform several tasks. Researchers can show patterns of digits and letters the model’s eye, which it then processes, causing it to write its responses to any of eight tasks.  And, just like the human brain, it can shift from task to task, recognizing an object one moment and memorizing a list of numbers the next. [emphasis mine] Because of its biological underpinnings, Spaun can also be used to understand how changes to the brain affect changes to behaviour.

“In related work, we have shown how the loss of neurons with aging leads to decreased performance on cognitive tests,” said Eliasmith. “More generally, we can test our hypotheses about how the brain works, resulting in a better understanding of the effects of drugs or damage to the brain.”

In addition, the model provides new insights into the sorts of algorithms that might be useful for improving machine intelligence. [emphasis mine] For instance, it suggests new methods for controlling the flow of information through a large system attempting to solve challenging cognitive tasks.

Laura Sanders’ Nov. 29, 2012 article for ScienceNews suggests that there is some controversy as to whether or not SPAUN does resemble a human brain,

… Henry Markram, who leads a different project to reconstruct the human brain called the Blue Brain, questions whether Spaun really captures human brain behavior. Because Spaun’s design ignores some important neural properties, it’s unlikely to reveal anything about the brain’s mechanics, says Markram, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It is not a brain model.”

Personally, I have a little difficulty seeing lines of code as ever being able to truly simulate brain activity. I think the notion of moving to something simpler (using fewer neurons as the Eliasmith team does) is a move in the right direction but I’m still more interested in devices such as the memristor and the electrochemical atomic switch and their potential.

Blue Brain Project

Memristor and artificial synapses in my April 19, 2012 posting

Atomic or electrochemical atomic switches and neuromorphic engineering briefly mentioned (scroll 1/2 way down) in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting.

ETA Dec. 19, 2012: There was an AMA (ask me anything) session on Reddit with the SPAUN team in early December, if you’re interested, you can still access the questions and answers,

We are the computational neuroscientists behind the world’s largest functional brain model

Protective clothing made of slime

Researchers at the University of Guelph have struck again! (See also my June 21, 2012 posting about their work on packaging for mangoes.) This time, it’s hagfish slime. From the Nov. 28, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

… If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong slime from a creature called the hagfish. The study appears in ACS’ journal Biomacromolecules.

Lead author Atsuko Negishi, her supervisor Douglas S. Fudge and colleagues explain that petroleum is the raw material for making modern synthetics. Rising prices and the quest for more sustainable alternatives have led scientists to consider the possibilities of using protein-based raw materials, such as spider silk. Another candidate comes from the hagfish, an eel-like fish that produces a thick slime to protect itself against predators. A single Atlantic Hagfish can produce quarts of slime in seconds. It clogs the gills and may suffocate other fish. The slime consists of tens of thousands of remarkably strong threads, each 100 times thinner than a human hair. The scientists set out to investigate spinning spider-silk-like fibers from the proteins of these slime threads.

I gather the scientists were successful given the title of their scientific paper,

The Production of Fibers and Films from Solubilized Hagfish Slime Thread Proteins by Atsuko Negishi, Clare L. Armstrong, Laurent Kreplak, Maikel C. Rheinstadter, Loong-Tak Lim, Todd E. Gillis, and Douglas S. Fudge in Biomacromolecules, 2012, 13 (11), pp 3475–3482 DOI: 10.1021/bm3011837 Publication Date (Web): September 27, 2012 Copyright © 2012 American Chemical Society

Interesting to note that the American Chemical Society has a copyright notice for an article about research that was funded at least partially by taxpayers. From the ScienceDaily news item,

The authors acknowledge funding from the Advanced Foods and Materials Network and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation.

Good luck to the researchers at the University of Guelph in their pursuit of protective clothing made of hagfish slime to replace materials using petroleum products.

Dialogues with the dead and other aspects of theatre and research

If theatre is, indeed, a dialogue with the dead as Antoine Vitez and Tadeusz Kantor would both have it, the dialogue I am drawn to spans many lives and many more deaths to be replicated in as many variations as can be explored, from straight theatre to circus, through installation and performance.

That quote is from Louis Patrick Leroux, associate professor at Concordia University (Montréal, Québec, Canada) and author of ‘Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus’, is being launched later today in Montréal. Leroux’s book explores links between intellectual/academic creation and theatrical/artistic expression. From the Nov. 28, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Concordia University researcher Louis Patrick Leroux is one scholar whose work often results in that type of outcome. A professor of creative writing and literature in Concordia’s Department of English as well as its Département d’études françaises, Leroux has spent years intimately involved in what is known as “research-creation,” a process that fosters the development and renewal of knowledge through aesthetic, technical, instrumental or other innovations.

“There’s a real need to bridge the gap between the creative and interpretive disciplines.” Leroux says. “If we can make that connection, we can link the humanities more closely to arts communities and create an important dialogue between academic and artistic creation.” He is now doing just that with his new book, Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus, published by Prise de parole.

By blending dramatic dialogues and thoughts on the creative process, Leroux gives his readers a new take on what it means to create as both a passionate and academic exercise. Before being compiled into a book, Leroux’s Dialogues were the fodder for a series of performative explorations, some theatrical, some filmed, others flirting with peformance art and installations at the Hexagram Concordia Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technologies.

The Nov. 26, 2012 Concordia University news release by Cléa Desjardins (which originated the release on EurekAlert) goes on to describe the book and give the location for its launch,

Dialogues fantasques offers an artistic way to understand the creative process and, in so doing, helps unpack the mysteries behind research-creation. Equal parts academic treatise and work of fiction, it is constructed in a way that makes the reader part of the research-creation experience. Even the book’s layout, designed by Concordia Assistant Professor of design Nathalie Dumont, invites the reader to think more about what it means to create and experience.

“There’s a lot of fascinating work that goes on in universities around the world that never makes it into peer-reviewed journals,” adds Leroux. He has been taking this message far and wide in recent months, thanks to Keynote lectures and conferences on research-creation at both Quebec City’s Université Laval and the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile. He has also explored these ideas as a Visiting Scholar at Duke University’s Centre for the Study of Canada, as well as through his current position as scholar-in-residence at the National Circus School in Montreal.

Leroux’s new book, Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus, will be launched on Thursday, November 29 from 5 to 7 p.m. [EST] at Librairie Le Port de tête (262 Mont-Royal Ave. E. [Montréal]). [emphasis mine]

The Hexagram Institute at Concordia, which Leroux directs, hosts a portal, Resonance, where you can view four of the Institute’s projects and the full text for the quote at the beginning of this post.

I wonder how long before someone decides to extend the exploration so it includes the sciences too.

I previously wrote about Concordia’s Jason Lewis and his work with poetry and mobile media in my June 29, 2012 posting.

100 billion euro investment in Europe’s nanoelectronics sector?

The Nov. 28, 2012 news item on Nanowerk about a proposed 100B euro investment in nanoelectronics is a little puzzling (Note: I have removed some links),

The AENEAS and CATRENE organisations announced today the publication of a new positioning document ‘Innovation for the future of Europe: Nanoelectronics beyond 2020’ (pdf).

Highlighting the need for Europe to substantially increase its research and innovation efforts in nanoelectronics in order to maintain its worldwide competitiveness, the document outlines a proposal by companies and institutes within Europe’s nanoelectronics ecosystem to invest 100 billion € up to the year 2020 on an ambitious research and innovation programme, planned and implemented in close cooperation with the European Union and the Member States.

I’m not entirely clear about who or which agencies are making this 100 billion € investment. In other words, whose money? The answer is not revealed in subsequent paragraphs of the news item nor is it in the positioning document.

We are offered this instead (from the news item),

Urgent strategy actions recommended in the positioning paper to secure the future of Europe’s nanoelectronics ecosystem include extension of the European Union’s dedicated budgets for Key Enabling Technologies to reflect their common dependence on nanoelectronics; simplified notification and enlarged eligibility for public funding in nanoelectronics, and greater focus on European Union funding for regional initiatives to support the proposed programme.

“Despite today’s climate of austerity, investing in technologies that will sustain Europe throughout the 21st century and solve important societal challenges such as energy efficiency, security and the aging population, makes economic sense,” explained Mr Villa [Enrico Villa, Chairman of CATRENE]. “We firmly believe that with the right investment and Europe-wide programme coordination, the European nanoelectronics ecosystem can increase Europe’s worldwide revenues by over 200 billion € per year and create an additional 250,000 direct and induced jobs in Europe.”

That seems like a plea for public funding than an attempt at public discussion.

Here’s more about AENEAS from its home page,

AENEAS is a non-profit industrial association established under French law, continuing the activities of the former ENIAC Platform and representing the Nanoelectronics R&D partners in the ENIAC Joint Undertaking.

It allows its members to participate in the Joint Technology Initiatives and provides the European Technology Platform with a legal backbone.

AENEAS is open to all European key players in Nanoelectronics, such as large industry, Small and Medium Enterprises, research institutes, academia, and associations.

Here’s more about CATRENE from its home page,

The recent EUREKA programme CATRENE (Cluster for Application and Technology Research in Europe on NanoElectronics) will effect Technological Leadership for a competitive European ICT industry. It is the ambition of Europe and the European companies to deliver nano-/microelectronics solutions that respond to the needs of society at large, improving the economic prosperity of Europe and reinforcing the ability of its industry to be at the forefront of the global competition.

CATRENE builds on the successful previous EUREKA programmes JESSI, MEDEA, and MEDEA+ in fostering the continued development of a dynamic European ecosystem with the critical mass necessary to compete at a global level in high technology industries.

CATRENE is a four-year programme, started 01 January 2008, and has been extended by another four years. This is in line with the changing landscape of the semiconductor industry as well as the present view on technology evolution and the time span over which most of the major applications will develop. Resources required will be annually around 2,500 person-years, equalling about € 4 billion for the extended programme.

James’ bond (Rice University research team creates graphene/nanotube hybrid)

I have to give credit to Mike Williams’ Nov. 27, 2012 Rice University news release for the “James’ bond” phrase used to describe this graphene/nanotube hybrid,

A seamless graphene/nanotube hybrid created at Rice University may be the best electrode interface material possible for many energy storage and electronics applications.

Led by Rice chemist James Tour, researchers have successfully grown forests of carbon nanotubes that rise quickly from sheets of graphene to astounding lengths of up to 120 microns, according to a paper published today by Nature Communications. A house on an average plot with the same aspect ratio would rise into space.

Seven-atom rings (in red) at the transition from graphene to nanotube make this new hybrid material a seamless conductor. The hybrid may be the best electrode interface material possible for many energy storage and electronics applications. Image courtesy of the Tour Group

The Rice hybrid combines two-dimensional graphene, which is a sheet of carbon one atom thick, and nanotubes into a seamless three-dimensional structure. The bonds between them are covalent, which means adjacent carbon atoms share electrons in a highly stable configuration. The nanotubes aren’t merely sitting on the graphene sheet; they become a part of it.

“Many people have tried to attach nanotubes to a metal electrode and it’s never gone very well because they get a little electronic barrier right at the interface,” Tour said. “By growing graphene on metal (in this case copper) and then growing nanotubes from the graphene, the electrical contact between the nanotubes and the metal electrode is ohmic. That means electrons see no difference, because it’s all one seamless material.

In the new work, the team grew a specialized odako that retained the iron catalyst and aluminum oxide buffer but put them on top of a layer of graphene grown separately on a copper substrate. The copper stayed to serve as an excellent current collector for the three-dimensional hybrids that were grown within minutes to controllable lengths of up to 120 microns.

Electron microscope images showed the one-, two- and three-walled nanotubes firmly embedded in the graphene, and electrical testing showed no resistance to the flow of current at the junction.

“The performance we see in this study is as good as the best carbon-based supercapacitors that have ever been made,” Tour said. “We’re not really a supercapacitor lab, and still we were able to match the performance because of the quality of the electrode. It’s really remarkable, and it all harkens back to that unique interface.”

Here’s the citation and a link for the article,

A seamless three-dimensional carbon nanotube graphene hybrid material by Yu Zhu, Lei Li, Chenguang Zhang, Gilberto Casillas,  Zhengzong Sun, Zheng Yan, Gedeng Ruan, Zhiwei Peng, Abdul-Rahman O. Raji, Carter Kittrell, Robert H. Hauge & James M. Tour in Nature Communications 3, Article number:1225 doi:10.1038/ncomms2234 Published 27 November 2012

This article is behind a paywall.

Producing stronger silk musically

Markus Buehler and his interdisciplinary team (my previous posts on their work includes Gossamer silk that withstands hurricane force winds and Music, math, and spiderwebs) have synthesized a new material based on spider silk. From the Nov. 28, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

Pound for pound, spider silk is one of the strongest materials known: Research by MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Markus Buehler has helped explain that this strength arises from silk’s unusual hierarchical arrangement of protein building blocks.

Now Buehler — together with David Kaplan of Tufts University and Joyce Wong of Boston University — has synthesized new variants on silk’s natural structure, and found a method for making further improvements in the synthetic material.

And an ear for music, it turns out, might be a key to making those structural improvements.

Here’s Buehler describing the work in an MIT video clip,

The Nov. 28, 2012 MIT news release by David Chandler provides more details,

Buehler’s previous research has determined that fibers with a particular structure — highly ordered, layered protein structures alternating with densely packed, tangled clumps of proteins (ABABAB) — help to give silk its exceptional properties. For this initial attempt at synthesizing a new material, the team chose to look instead at patterns in which one of the structures occurred in triplets (AAAB and BBBA).

Making such structures is no simple task. Kaplan, a chemical and biomedical engineer, modified silk-producing genes to produce these new sequences of proteins. Then Wong, a bioengineer and materials scientist, created a microfluidic device that mimicked the spider’s silk-spinning organ, which is called a spinneret.

Even after the detailed computer modeling that went into it, the outcome came as a bit of a surprise, Buehler says. One of the new materials produced very strong protein molecules — but these did not stick together as a thread. The other produced weaker protein molecules that adhered well and formed a good thread. “This taught us that it’s not sufficient to consider the properties of the protein molecules alone,” he says. “Rather, [one must] think about how they can combine to form a well-connected network at a larger scale.”

The different levels of silk’s structure, Buehler says, are analogous to the hierarchical elements that make up a musical composition — including pitch, range, dynamics and tempo. The team enlisted the help of composer John McDonald, a professor of music at Tufts, and MIT postdoc David Spivak, a mathematician who specializes in a field called category theory. Together, using analytical tools derived from category theory to describe the protein structures, the team figured out how to translate the details of the artificial silk’s structure into musical compositions.

The differences were quite distinct: The strong but useless protein molecules translated into music that was aggressive and harsh, Buehler says, while the ones that formed usable fibers sound much softer and more fluid.

Combining materials modeling with mathematical and musical tools, Buehler says, could provide a much faster way of designing new biosynthesized materials, replacing the trial-and-error approach that prevails today. Genetically engineering organisms to produce materials is a long, painstaking process, he says, but this work “has taught us a new approach, a fundamental lesson” in combining experiment, theory and simulation to speed up the discovery process.

Materials produced this way — which can be done under environmentally benign, room-temperature conditions — could lead to new building blocks for tissue engineering or other uses, Buehler says: scaffolds for replacement organs, skin, blood vessels, or even new materials for use in civil engineering.

It may be that the complex structures of music can reveal the underlying complex structures of biomaterials found in nature, Buehler says. “There might be an underlying structural expression in music that tells us more about the proteins that make up our bodies. After all, our organs — including the brain — are made from these building blocks, and humans’ expression of music may inadvertently include more information that we are aware of.”

“Nobody has tapped into this,” he says, adding that with the breadth of his multidisciplinary team, “We could do this — making better bio-inspired materials by using music, and using music to better understand biology.”

At the end of Chandler’s news release there’s a notice about a summer course with Markus Buehler,

For those interested in the work Professor Buehler is doing, you may also be interested to know that he is offering a short course on campus this summer called Materials By Design.

Materials By Design
June 17-20, 2013

Through lectures and hands-on labs, participants will learn how materials failure, studied from a first principles perspective, can be applied in an effective “learning-from-failure approach” to design and make novel materials. Participants will also learn how superior material properties in nature and biology can be mimicked in bioinspired materials for applications in new technology. This course will be of interest to scientists, engineers, managers, and policy makers working in the area of materials design, development, manufacturing, and testing. [emphasis mine]

I wasn’t expecting to see managers and policy makers as possible students for this course.

By the way, Buehler is not the only scientist to make a connection between music and biology (although he seems to be the only person using the concept for applications), there’s also geneticist and biophysicist, Mae Wan Ho and her notion of quantum jazz. From the Quantum Jazz Biology* article by David Reilly in the June 23, 2010 Isis Report,

I use the analogy of ‘quantum jazz’ to express the quantum coherence of the organism. It goes through a fantastic range of space and time scales, from the tiniest atom or subatomic particle to the whole organism and beyond. Organisms communicate with other organisms, and are attuned to natural rhythms, so they have circadian rhythms, annual rhythms, and so on. At the other extreme, you have very fast reactions that take place in femtoseconds. And all these rhythms are coordinated, there is evidence for that.

Printing new knee cartilage

I was reminded of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona while reading the Nov. 22, 2012 news item on Nanowerk about printing cartilage for knees. Some years ago I knew a Canadian wrestler who’d participated in those games and he had a story about knee cartilage that featured amputation.

Apparently, wrestlers in earlier generations had knee surgeries that involved removal of cartilage for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, decades later, these retired wrestlers found that whatever cartilage had remained was now worn through and bones were grinding on bones causing such pain that more than one wrestler agreed to amputation. I never did check out the story but it rang true largely because I’d come across a similar story from a physiotherapist regarding  a shoulder joint and the consequences of losing cartilage in there (very, very painful).

It seems that scientists are now working on a solution for those of us unlucky enough to have damaged or worn through cartilage in our joints, from the Nov. 22, 2012 IOP science news release, (Institute of Physics) which originated the news item,

The printing of 3D tissue has taken a major step forward with the creation of a novel hybrid printer that simplifies the process of creating implantable cartilage.

The printer is a combination of two low-cost fabrication techniques: a traditional ink jet printer and an electrospinning machine. Combining these systems allowed the scientists to build a structure made from natural and synthetic materials. …

In this study, the hybrid system produced cartilage constructs with increased mechanical stability compared to those created by an ink jet printer using gel material alone. The constructs were also shown to maintain their functional characteristics in the laboratory and a real-life system.

The key to this was the use of the electrospinning machine, which uses an electrical current to generate very fine fibres from a polymer solution. Electrospinning allows the composition of polymers to be easily controlled and therefore produces porous structures that encourage cells to integrate into surrounding tissue.

In this study, flexible mats of electrospun synthetic polymer were combined, layer-by-layer, with a solution of cartilage cells from a rabbit ear that were deposited using the traditional ink jet printer. The constructs were square with a 10cm diagonal and a 0.4mm thickness.

The researchers tested their strength by loading them with variable weights and, after one week, tested to see if the cartilage cells were still alive.

The constructs were also inserted into mice for two, four and eight weeks to see how they performed in a real life system. After eight weeks of implantation, the constructs appeared to have developed the structures and properties that are typical of elastic cartilage, demonstrating their potential for insertion into a patient.

The researchers state that in a future scenario, cartilage constructs could be clinically applied by using an MRI scan of a body part, such as the knee, as a blueprint for creating a matching construct. A careful selection of scaffold material for each patient’s construct would allow the implant to withstand mechanical forces while encouraging new cartilage to organise and fill the defect.

The researchers’ article in the IOP science jouBiofrarnal, Biofabrication, is freely available for 30 days after its date of publication, Nov. 21, 2012. You do need to register with IOP science to gain access. Here’s the citation and a link,

Hybrid printing of mechanically and biologically improved constructs for cartilage tissue engineering applications by Tao Xu, Kyle W Binder, Mohammad Z Albanna, Dennis Dice, Weixin Zhao, James J Yoo and Anthony Atala in 2013 Biofabrication 5 015001 doi:10.1088/1758-5082/5/1/015001

I believe all of the scientists involved in this bioprinting project are with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.