3D Printers

Printed bone joint replacements on the horizon

A team led by a mechatronics engineer has found a way to push the boundaries of 3D printing and replace bones and joints with 3D printed versions that actually graft to the existing bone.


Mihaela Vlasea graduated from the University of Waterloo and stayed on to change the world, but she is not the only one working on this concept. An Italian research team revealed a bioglass cartilage recently that bears some similarities and that basic material has been with us since the 1960s. It encourages the regrowth of healthy tissue thanks to its porous structure, but this team has gone about its business in a different way.

Using a printer she designed and built herself, Vlasea created the right porous structure from inorganic material. That includes scaffolds for joint replacements printed from titanium, a replacement vertebrae and even a dental implant.


Synthetic bone is here

They then worked with Calcium Polyphosphate, which creates a biodegradable scaffold with the right level of porosity. Essentially this invites the surrounding natural bone to invade the structure and grow through it like coral.

The printer is so advanced that it can create nutrient and fluid channels that are microns thick through the structure of the bone. This opens up a world of opportunities for medical professionals and means they can replace entire ball and socket joints.

This ‘printed bone’ is such a close match that the researchers believe cartilage cells will attach to the surface. So it could form the basis of a totally natural repair.


Replacement joints are a quick fix

Conventional replacements rely on a combination of titanium, plastic and ceramic parts to recreate the joint to the best of our ability. Thanks to 3D printing we can now give people tailored parts and a better quality of post-surgical life. But this research promises so much more.

Replacement joints wear out in 10-15 years, they cause discomfort and they are far from an ideal solution. This is a genuine replacement. So once the patient has recovered from the surgery, they are on their way to a full and active life.

“I am very happy about how things turned out because of three reasons,” Vlasea says. “I got to work with an amazing interdisciplinary group. I am now involved in the additive manufacturing wave that is sweeping technology across a multitude of sectors. I got to use my engineering skills to build a 3D printing machine.”


Universities going for 3D printing in a big way

Both the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto have exceptionally active 3D printing departments and are working on truly game changing projects. The institutions have bet the farm on porosity proving the key to better printed bone implants and they believe that it will make a huge difference to surgery and dentistry in the years ahead.

The team is also involved in micro-scale additive manufacturing, which involves adding sensors to 3D printed material. The applications for this are simply breathtaking and cover everything from bionic prosthetics through to advanced filtration. They are also producing better materials than we have right now.


3D printing is taking off at the University of Waterloo


“We’re getting some fantastic physical properties out of additive manufacturing,” says Ehsan Toyserkani, who runs Waterloo’s Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Laboratory. “The mechanical strength we are getting is much better — in some cases as much as 25 per cent improvement — over conventional manufacturing.”


Even the artists get a go

Different departments have also embraced this move into 3D printing. Architecture students can see their designs come to life, the design school makes full use of the Fortus 360mc printer when the medical team isn’t in full flow and the university has actively encouraged 3D printing to take a central role.

The University of Waterloo has even created a 3D printing centre of excellence, based on this groundbreaking medical work, which it hopes will make it a pillar of the Canadian tech community.

Additive printing is shrewd business for educational institutions, big business and the world at large. If they commit now, smaller schools can ride this wave to the top.

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