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.

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