Australian researchers have used a handheld 3D printing pen to "draw" human stem cells in freeform patterns with extremely high survival rates.

The device, developed from a collaboration between ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) researchers and orthopedic surgeons at St. Vincent’s Hospital, in Melbourne, is designed to allow surgeons to sculpt customized cartilage implants during surgery. Using a hydrogel bio-ink to carry and support living human stem cells, and a low-powered light source to solidify the ink during dispensing, the pen delivers a cell survival rate in excess of 97%.

The device is designed to allow surgeons to sculpt custom cartilage implants during surgery. Image credit: ACES.The device is designed to allow surgeons to sculpt custom cartilage implants during surgery. Image credit: ACES. 3D bioprinters have the potential to revolutionize tissue engineering, as they can be used to print cells, layer by layer, to build up artificial tissues for implantation. But in some applications, such as cartilage repair, the exact geometry of an implant cannot be precisely known prior to surgery. This makes it extremely difficult to pre-prepare an artificial cartilage implant.

The BioPen is held in the surgeon’s hands, allowing the surgeon unprecedented control in treating defects by filling them with custom "scaffolds."

“The development of this type of technology is only possible with interactions between scientists and clinicians—clinicians to identify the problem and scientists to develop a solution,” says Professor Peter Choong, director of orthopedics at St. Vincent’s Hospital, who developed the concept with ACES Director Gordon Wallace.

The team designed the BioPen with the practical constraints of surgery in mind and fabricated it using 3D-printed medical grade plastic and titanium. The device is small, lightweight, ergonomic and sterilizable.

“The BioPen project highlights both the challenges and exciting opportunities in multidisciplinary research. When we get it right we can make extraordinary progress at a rapid rate,” Professor Wallace says.

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