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3D printing can help heal broken bones, and maybe new organs

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

There are countless uses for 3D printing, but can it be used to improve the world of healthcare? In this episode, Dr. Kenneth Sewell speaks with Dr. James Smay, a professor at OSU's College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology (CEAT). They discuss how 3D printing can be used to fix broken bones and the possibility of it being used for organ transplants in the future.


SMAY: So if you've broken a bone, and you're lucky - you've just cracked the bone and the doctor will put the ends back together, put a cast on you and your body will naturally heal that crack over time by a process of dissolving away bone mineral, then redepositing bone mineral to reform that natural bone.

However, if you're missing a fairly large segment of bone, what we call it critical size defect. We have to give the bone cells something to work on to bridge that large gap. And so there's a couple of options. You can take a piece of bone off your hip that I think they call that the iliac crest, which requires now a second surgery and a lot of pain. That's called an autograft. You could take a piece of bone from a pig or a human cadaver, and use that for a scaffold, or you could create a synthetic scaffold on which the bones can do their job of trying to repair the break in the bone.

SEWELL: And you do that with a 3D printer.

SMAY: With a 3D printer — yes. So, as I mentioned, we're extruding this sort of paste-like ink that we make out of the ceramic particles by blending them with some water and other processing aids and polymer. And this ink can be extruded into filaments that are on the diameter of 200 micrometers or 0.2 millimeters.

We can print these into a grid structure. Looks a bit like a three-dimensional lattice structure. And the advantage of this is that the size of the filaments and the size of the pores and this lattice work is very commensurate with what bone cells like. It gives them a happy environment to be able to move along the scaffold very rapidly and both deposit natural bone and, because the scaffold is made out of calcium phosphate, they can etch away that scaffold over time and replace it with natural bone.

SEWELL: Where do you see this going into the future?

SMAY: We’re living in an unprecedented time of modern medicine and the miracles that we can perform. And I think one of the directions that's going to go is with 3D printing of, synthetic materials along with seeding the synthetic materials with cells to cause nature to grow organs and replacement body parts effectively. In my particular area with trying to heal bone breaks that would otherwise be written off as unsolvable, 3D printing can enable some technology there. So I think this is the direction in which things are going. We can engineer the microenvironment now by 3D printing and, in collaboration with chemists and biologists, we can get cells growing in structured scaffolds for new applications. So maybe you're going to eventually be able to 3D print a pancreas or a liver, and do some of these replacement organs. So we wouldn't have to be restricted to waiting on a donor to come available.

SEWELL: This is Kenneth Sewell for OSU Research Matters.

Dr. Sewell and Dr. Smay will be speaking more in depth on 3D printing at 'Research On Tap' — Monday, April 18 at Iron Monk Brewery in Stillwater. The informal discussion is open to the public and starts at 5:30 p.m.

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