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Additive manufacturing makes headway in 3D-printed bones

01 Mar 2016  | Amy Norcross

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3D bioprinting, a facet of additive manufacturing that involves fabricating replacement tissues and organs for patients layer by layer to create a 3D structure, has been gaining notable momentum. A number of companies such as Organovo, Cyfuse Biomedical and BioBots are active in the space and making incredible strides to improve outcomes for patients dealing with a range of illnesses and injuries.

Presently, objects 3D-printed for medical implant applications are made of plastic, ceramic or metal. A team of researchers at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, however, is working to develop potentially implantable bones made using a material comprising finely ground bones layered thousands of times with biological glue. According to SMU president and research team leader Huang Wenhua, the reason behind using allograft bone powder as a 3D-printed material is that it is made from creatures in the same species. Theoretically, this approach would increase the chances of biological compatibility.

3D-printed bones

Figure 1: Southern Medical University researchers in China are working to develop potentially implantable bones made using a material comprising finely ground bones layered thousands of times with biological glue. (Source:

The research has entered the animal testing stage (experimenting with goat and rabbit implants made from goat and rabbit bone powder) and will involve comparing the 3D-printed bones with actual bones to compare the structural differences and determine a way to account for the fact that the 3D-printed bones do not have the same strength as real bones. So far, the largest bone the researchers have printed is 15cm long, said Whitney Hipolite on

According to an article published on the site, additional testing on the printed bones is necessary, particularly to determine what levels of rigidity are safe for implants and how impacts will affect those bone structures. "We all know that exerting enormous pressure on the human tibia (through impact) [can] cause comminuted fractures or even...tibial plateau fractures," said Wenhua. "But exactly how much force causes such harm; those kind of questions aren't answered yet."

Actual clinical applications for the 3D-printed bones are not anticipated for at least another five or six years.

A related line of research is being worked on by Dutch company Xilloc Medical, which in collaboration with Tokyo-based Next21 is able to 3D print a bone-like implant using calcium phosphate (a primary component of actual bones) that can be converted to real bone by the patient. The CT-Bone implant is expected to be available "in the coming months," according to the Xilloc website.

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