With the proliferation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, many soldiers are returning home with severe trauma injuries. Advances in battlefield medicine also mean that soldiers who may have died in combat in another era will live. Doctors are turning to a new generation of medical techniques and devices, including advanced prosthetics, to help soldiers recuperate and maintain mobility. An essential part of this science is the bone graft, using bone from another source to fill in gaps where bone has been damaged, destroyed or removed.
Sometimes a bone graft can mean the difference between amputation and saving a limb. Bone grafts aren’t just for battlefield injuries -- they're a vitally important procedure used to treat many conditions and injuries, including serious accidents, broken bones, birth defects, degenerative bone disorders, bone loss due to removal of tumors or intensive dental surgery.
Currently bone grafts can be performed with a small piece of bone, either from another part of the patient’s body or a cadaver, or with metallic inserts. However, there are drawbacks to each of these methods. Taking bone from another part of a patient’s body requires additional incisions, which means more pain and recovery time. It also presents the potential for complications such as infection or weakening of the bone. Bone from cadavers is generally considered less effective because it doesn’t develop as well as natural bone, and metallic inserts have to be replaced over time.
Enter artificial bones, a concept that contains enormous potential but one that has until recently been fraught with difficulties. Bones made from biological materials are generally too fragile to support weight. Artificial bones made from ceramics have limited use and are best used in conjunction with a bone graft anyway. But an ingenious new method may present new possibilities for bone grafts and artificial bones, and surprisingly, it makes use of something many people have in their home: an inkjet printer.
Of course, this is not a typical inkjet printer -- it is heavily modified and quite a bit bigger. But the technology is quite similar to a conventional inkjet printer, and the process could potentially revolutionize bone graft surgery. Scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, are using their printer to create perfect replicas of damaged bones by “printing” new bones, layer by layer.
See the next page to learn more about bone making.