How can scientists use an inkjet printer to make bones?

Inkjet Technology Applications

Inkjet-produced bones and rapid prototyping are part of a wider effort to use these technologies to make precise, custom-designed implants for medical use. Scientists at Manchester University in the United Kingdom are working on a technique to print artificial skin, which could similarly revolutionize the skin graft process. That technology may be ready for clinical trials in five years [Live Science].

“Bio-inks” also exist in the form of proteins or individual cells arranged in patterns. These inks can be adapted for a variety of purposes. In December 2006, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University announced that they had used a custom-designed inkjet printer to develop bone and muscle cells from mice stem cells [Technology Review]. Stem cells have scientists particularly excited because they have the ability to grow into any type of cell, though they remain a contentious topic. (To learn about the controversy surrounding stem cells, read How Stem Cells Work.) The Carnegie Mellon team uses growth factors -- solutions that direct stem cells to grow into a specific type of cell -- in combination with adult mice stem cells and a material that binds to growth factors. Through continued research, combining stem cells with bio-inks may allow scientists to create not only “printed,” natural bones but also tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and other needed tissues.

Inkjet technology improved document printing long ago, but it seems that the real revolution may be in how it changes medicine. A decade from now, a car accident victim or a grandmother suffering from osteoarthritis may simply receive a customized, natural, printed piece of bone rather than facing amputation, painful grafts or metal inserts. In fact, scientists dream that one day they will be able to print whole bones, tissues or even organs, making loss of limb, mobility or vital organs a thing of the past.

For more information about artificial bones, the various applications of inkjet technology and related topics, please consult the following links:

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  • Bjorn, Carey. “Printable Skin: 'Inkjet' Breakthrough Makes Human Tissue.” Feb. 1, 2005.
  • Chu, Jennifer. ”Printing Muscle and Bone.” Technology Review. Dec. 19, 2006.
  • Fields, Scott. “Growing Bones: New Technique Proves Promising.” Live Science. May 9, 2006.
  • Mayne, Eleanor. “The artificial bones made from an inkjet.” Daily Mail. Apr. 14, 2007.
  • Wichner, David. “Bones of invention.” Arizona Daily Star. July 17, 2003.