Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a bio-glass that mimics human cartilage and can be used to encourage the body’s systems to regrow where there has been a loss or injury.

3D printable scaffolds encourage cartilage growth. Image Credit: Imperial College London3D printable scaffolds encourage cartilage growth. Image Credit: Imperial College LondonCartilage is the connective tissue found in joints and in between the vertebrae. Cartilage provides shock-absorbing qualities that cushion the knees, for example, as well as to help carry and distribute the load placed on bones. The researchers' bio-material is made with silica and a polycaprolactone. The material has the properties of cartilage in that it is flexible, strong, durable and resilient. The researchers create the material in biodegradable ink form, which allows them to 3D-print structures that promote formation and growth of cartilage cells in the knee.

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The process has been demonstrated in test tubes. The material is self-healing, which could make it a more reliable and resilient implant.

As a protocol for damaged intervertebral discs, the team proposes synthetic bio-glass cartilage disc implants, which would provide an alternative to “fusing” the vertebrae together. This currently used approach can limit a patient’s mobility. In knees, biodegradable scaffolds would be printed using the bio-glass ink. The implants would provide a template that replicates the structure of real cartilage in the knee. The structure, stiffness, and chemistry of the bio-glass would provide cushioning as well as encourage cartilage cells to regrow through microscopic pores within the implant. Over time, the biomaterial would be absorbed by the body, leaving healthy cartilage in its place. The need for a knee replacement, when only the cartilage was damaged, could be eliminated.