As expected, the idea of starting to print implants and custom surgical tools soon emerged. The two questions that arise are: how advanced is this technology today, and how far could we go with it? Here, Dr Hugo Herrero Antón de Vez, MD, on behalf of materials comparison database Matmatch, explores the materials and processes shaping tomorrow’s medical industry.

3D printing is revolutionising the healthcare market, bringing new tools to all medical specialties. This technology began to be introduced mainly in traumatology and maxillofacial surgery, where it was interesting to print bone models for learning and understanding complex fractures, deformities or scoliosis. Since the anatomy of each patient is different, 3D printing is essential to be able to manufacture individualised solutions.

Surgical guides and personalised surgical instruments

One of the advances with the greatest impact on orthopaedic and maxillofacial surgery is the impression of what we call surgical guides. These are tools provided with channels or guiding tubes that guide traditional surgical instruments on a path previously planned in radiological software. It should be added that these guides are designed to adapt to the anatomical contour of the patient and are therefore personalised.

The field where they are most developed is in dentistry, although they are also being implemented in traumatology, maxillofacial surgery and oncology.

However, I might add, that choosing the material is not an easy task.

The most widespread material today is PLA (polylactic acid), the safety of which is extremely well tested because it is the material used in absorbable sutures. For example, the Polysorb™ Braided Absorbable Sutures uses a synthetic polyester composed of glycolide and lactide (derived from glycolic and lactic acids). Also, PLA printing can be done by extrusion, the printing system for which is cheap and reliable.

Medical implants

As far as medical implants are concerned, research is much more extensive since not only can implants be printed with inert materials such as PEKK (poly-ether-ketone-ketone) used by Oxford Performance Materials or carbon fibre reinforced filament used by invibio but, in recent years, fully bio-compatible materials have appeared, which over time the body replaces with its own tissue and even full or partially functional human tissues have been printed.

The biocompatible materials used for 3D printing, called bio-inks, allow the printing of a scaffold that serves as a structure to be colonised by the patient’s own cells. It is therefore vital to take into account the parameters of porosity and pore-interconnectivity to allow the cell movement into the scaffold. These are two essential characteristics in which 3D printing is by far more advantageous versus other production techniques.

Bio-inks are usually natural polymers such as hyaluronic acid, elastin or even spider derived silk proteins. This last example is particularly interesting since there is a company, Spidey Tek, whose product, based on spider silk proteins, claims to have a tensile strength of 40,000 MPa (100 times that of carbon fibre). There are also salts that could be used to fabricate bone scaffolds, like one made of tricalcium phosphate produced by Cellink.

There are also synthetic polymers, for example, amphiphilic block copolymers, which stand out for having the ability to self-assemble. These are hydrophilic spherical structures on the outside with a hydrophobic interior. They allow the transport of some drugs or other liposoluble substances in an aqueous medium), forming micellar structures that are hydrophilic spherical structures on the outside and with a hydrophobic interior.

They, therefore, allow the transport of some drugs or other liposoluble substancesin an aqueous medium, PEG (Polyethylene glycol), Poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPA) and polyphosphazenes.

What does the future hold?

But how easy is it to print a functional organ or tissue? Take the example of a meniscus of the knee, whose function is merely mechanical. A meniscus can be imagined as a cushion between the femur and the crescent-shaped tibia that serves as a stop and stabilises the joint, as well as acting as a shock absorber.

The first thing we must ask ourselves is: how do we adapt the shape of the meniscus to each person? Luckily, under normal conditions, the meniscus presents a reasonable bilateral symmetry, that is to say, it would be enough to copy the one from the other knee.

It may seem like a simple process but in practice a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan must be carried out and, using radiological visualisation software. Then, the meniscus must be selected and separated from the rest of the structures so that it can then be exported in STL format so that the printer can print it. Some software performs tissue segmentation automatically, with the newest using algorithms based on fractals or deep learning.

The second consideration is the material itself. All of the supporting structure, which forms part of the tissue, is what in medicine is called the extracellular matrix. The extracellular matrix of a meniscus is composed mainly of collagen. There are companies such as Advanced Biomatrix that commercialise it in the form of bio-inks, although we can also opt for a synthetic absorbable polymer such as polycaprolactone (PCL). Scientific literature supports the use of both. The final product must offer the same mechanical properties as the natural one and, therefore, the polymer fibres we choose must have the same placement as in reality.

Overall, 3D printing is today more than validated in medicine by a multitude of publications as a tool for printing anatomical models, surgical guides and personalised implants.

But despite the rapid implementation of this technology in the healthcare sector, printing a functional tissue is not a trivial process. That is why today, despite the fact that the market is directing its efforts in this direction [11], bio-printing has not yet reached operating rooms, except for a few specific exceptions restricted to the field of research.

Personally, I believe that if companies, universities and doctors are able to work together as a team, having in mind the benefit of the patient, we will be able to see this dream come true in the next few years.

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