Surgical Tribune Asia Pacific

Researchers develop handheld surgical pen that prints human stem cells

By Surgical Tribune
April 18, 2016

MELBOURNE, Australia: 3-D bioprinters that can be used to print cells layer by layer to build up artificial tissue for implantation are currently revolutionising tissue engineering. In a landmark proof of concept experiment, Australian researchers have used a handheld 3-D printing pen to draw human stem cells in freeform patterns with extremely high survival rates. The BioPen is designed to allow surgeons to sculpt customised cartilage implants during surgery.

In some applications, such as cartilage repair, the exact geometry of an implant cannot be known precisely prior to surgery. This makes it extremely difficult to prepare an artificial cartilage implant in advance. Therefore, the researchers developed the handheld BioPen, which allows the surgeon to treat cartilage defects by filling them with bespoke scaffolds.

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 per cent.

The device was developed by researchers at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) in Wollongong in Australia in collaboration with orthopaedic surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.

“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,” stated Prof. Peter Choong, director of orthopaedics at St Vincent’s Hospital, who developed the concept together with ACES Director Prof. Gordon Wallace.

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

“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,” Wallace said.

The study, titled “Development of the Biopen: A handheld device for surgical printing of adipose stem cells at a chondral wound site”, was published online in the Biofabrication journal on 22 March.

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