3-D live printing may give patients faster option to heal facial bones

Seated scientist works with table-top machine while standing scientists observes

Image: College of Dentistry

Whether the need results from a traumatic fracture or surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, decisions about how to restore bone in patients can have a lasting impact on their ultimate recovery. In treating such defects in the skull, upper jaw, lower jaw or orbital bone — the eye socket — regenerating bone often is done in one of two ways.

There’s autologous bone grafting, in which a patient’s own bone is taken from another part of the body and used to stimulate growth in the injured area. It’s not ironclad, though, as implant morbidity is still a present reality, not to mention the toll multiple surgeries can take on a patient.

Another option is grafting synthetic materials to stimulate bone healing; however, timing is a problem. From the time of injury or surgery to the generation and delivery of the material — FDA-approved calcium phosphates, titanium metal and suture-grade polymers — there is a critical wait period of three to four weeks. It’s time a patient simply does not have if bone is to heal properly.

“Sometimes you’ll have a traumatic fracture injury; the bone will break, and then it will continue to resorb into a defect. In some cases these can involve craniofacial defects in a non-load bearing area, like the skull,” says Venu Varanasi, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M College of Dentistry.

A new technology from Varanasi and College of Dentistry researchers could stand to revolutionize the treatment process, giving medical professionals another option for healing bone, and a significantly faster one at that.

It’s called 3-D live printing, a process in which substances such as bioactive biopolymers are integrated with bioceramic materials and literally printed onto the affected area, forming a scaffolding rich in blood, and with it, oxygen, for new bone to grow.

“Our bioceramics are biodegradable, or they can be engulfed through cells,” Varanasi explains. “The intent in the end is to rapidly deliver the therapeutic, induce the healing at an earlier point, and then allow the cells and the tissue to overtake the material, consume the material, and allow for full restoration of natural bone.”

It’s a concept that has generated promising results since testing began on animal models in spring 2015. To date, the chemical makeup of the new bone has been found to be comparable to the bone surrounding the defect. Current National Institutes of Health – National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research funding dating back to 2014 as well as Texas A&M University intramural grants have made these efforts possible.

Researchers in Varanasi’s lab are fine-tuning the methodology and can now complete the entire printing process within 45 minutes.

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