Time for your Obvious Statement of the Day: Breaking a bone is a huge pain, in more ways than one. I still remember how painful and limiting it was to break my wrist 20 years ago, and that was just a small fracture; I was able to get back to normal – albeit carefully – pretty much right away after the cast came off. It’s not that easy for many people, however. More severe breaks sometimes require surgery, which often includes the implantation of metal devices like plates, screws and rods to stabilize the bone while it mends. Once the implant is in, it either stays in the body for good, or has to be removed surgically at a later date; both options present the potential for complications like infection or further pain.
Like other medical procedures, fracture repair may soon be made easier on patients thanks to 3D printing. A great deal of research is currently being done on 3D printed bone and biocompatible implants, and the latest comes from German chemical company Evonik, which is currently researching biodegradable composite materials as an alternative to metal implants. The research, which is taking place at the company’s Medical Devices Project House in Birmingham, Alabama, is still in the early stages, but Evonik hopes that it will result in biocompatible implants that can be gradually absorbed by the body as the bone heals, eliminating the need for future surgeries.
“In the long term, our focus is regenerative medicine. We want to create bioabsorbable implants to replace damaged tissues with healthy tissues, said Andreas Karau, head of the Medical Devices Project House. “Our current work on biodegradable composites is a first step in this direction.”
According to Karau, Evonik’s polylactic acid-based polymers break down into carbon dioxide and water over a period of time ranging from a few weeks to several months, depending on the material’s molecular composition, chain length and crystallinity. Currently, they’re looking into reinforcing those biodegradable polymers with substances such as calcium phosphate derivatives.
“As the polymers gradually break down, calcium and phosphate can be absorbed into the new formed bone tissue,” Karau said.
Evonik also hopes to develop polymeric scaffolds, to which living cells could be added to generate actual cartilage. Ultimately, the company wants to create biodegradable polymers that can be 3D printed to create customized, patient-specific implants. More research needs to be done to improve the material’s biocompatibilty and strength, however; right now, the available materials aren’t strong enough to support large, weight-bearing bones.
The researchers working on the new materials are part of CREAVIS, Evonik’s strategic innovation unit, working alongside polymer experts from the company’s Health Care and Performance business units. Evonik was also recently named as a partner in HP’s open material development program, which was announced as part of the release of the HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer. Evonik will be developing new powder materials customized to the Multi Jet Fusion technology, building off of their experience in creating their VESTOSINT polyamide 12-based powders. Discuss further in the Evonik 3D Printed Biocompatible Implants forum over at 3DPB.com.