Lego-inspired, tiny 3D-printed bricks help repair bone fractures and soft tissue

The technology allows us to repair tissue more precisely and quickly than current standard methods.


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Through the combination of cell therapy and the use of biomaterial scaffolds, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine are the emerging areas with encouraging clinical applications. Bio-scaffolding is the use of biocompatible and bioresorbable materials to construct a 3D structure comparable to the implant tissue area in order to promote tissue regeneration and injury recovery.

Now, the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) researchers have developed a tiny, 3D-printed technology that can be stacked together like Lego blocks and help repair broken bones and soft tissue. The technology was developed and evaluated in collaboration with scientists from the University of Oregon, New York University, and Mahidol University in Thailand.

These small hollow 3D-printed bricks serve as scaffolds on which both hard and soft tissue can regenerate more quickly than current standard methods. Each brick is 1.5 millimeters cubed or roughly the size of a small flea. These hollow blocks can be filled with small amounts of gel containing various growth factors that are precisely placed closest to where they are needed.

Each brick is 1.5 millimeters cubed, or roughly the size of a small flea.
Each brick is 1.5 millimeters cubed, or roughly the size of a small flea. Credit: OHSU

These modular devices, containing four layers of four-bricks-by-four bricks, can be assembled to fit into almost any space. According to Luiz Bertassoni, Ph.D., who led the technology’s development, this patent-pending scaffolding is easy to use without the need for specialized equipment. It can be stacked together like Legos and placed in more than 29,000 different configurations to match the complexity and size of almost any situation.

During the lab tests, which eas performed on rats with broken bones, it was found that the growth factor-filled blocks placed near repaired rat bones led to about three times more blood vessel growth than conventional scaffolding material.

The 3D-printed micro cage technology improves healing by stimulating the right type of cells to grow in the right place, and at the right time,” said study co-author Ramesh Subbiah, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in Bertassoni’s OHSU lab who specializes in growth factor delivery. “Different growth factors can be placed inside each block, enabling us to more precisely and quickly repair tissue.

The researchers believe that this 3D-printed brick technology could be used to heal bones that need to be cut for cancer treatment, for spinal fusion procedures, and to build weakened jawbones before a dental implant. By changing the composition of its material, they estimate that it could also be used to build or repair soft tissues. With significantly more research, researchers hope the modular micro cage approach could even be used to make organs for transplant.

Journal Reference:
  1. 3D Printing of Microgel‐Loaded Modular Microcages as Instructive Scaffolds for Tissue Engineering. DOI: 10.1002/adma.202001736


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