In 2016, researchers at the University of Wollongong partnered with orthopedic surgeons at St. Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne to develop the BioPen, a bioprinting pen that allows surgeons to draw new cartilage directly into a patient’s body during surgery. It is a remarkable invention with the potential to solve a big problem for surgeons and patients: it’s often difficult for surgeons to discern the exact shape and size that an implant needs to be before surgery, meaning longer surgical times and the possibility that an implant may not fit perfectly. With the BioPen, surgeons can simply fill in a damaged area with the stem cells loaded in the pen. The cells will then multiply and form into new cartilage. It means much shorter surgery times, as well as a more seamless repair.

The BioPen was successfully tested on sheep and is headed toward human trials and eventual commercialization, but one thing in particular is needed: a means to grow the massive amounts of stem cells needed for the technology. For this, Swinburne University of Technology has been developing a new technology called BioSphere.

Fluorescent microscopy image of biospheres with stem cells growing on their surface before detachment by infra-red beam. Scale Bar = 0.1 mm. [Image: Yashaswini Vegi]

According to research scientist Dr. Nicholas Reynolds, progress in the bioprinting field has been slowed by the lack of a means to generate the huge amounts of cells needed for treatments, as well as a lack of a way to recover the cells from the dishes they are grown on without damaging them. BioSphere technology replaces the dishes with thousands of polymer beads less than a millimeter in diameter.

“This will vastly increase the available area for the cells to grow on enabling researchers to generate many more cells than is currently possible,” said Dr. Reynolds. “The surface of the beads will be coated with light sensitive nanoparticles that do not affect the cells’ growth until the particles are activated with an infra-red beam. At this point the activated nanoparticles cause the cells to gently detach from the beads, and can be easily recovered for re-implantation into the injured patient.”

The BioPen project is one of 11 recipients of a $10 million grant announced by the Australian Federal Government. The grant is part of the government’s $35 million BioMedTech Horizons program, which aims to help move more Australian ideas and discoveries toward proof-of-concept and commercialization, as well as stimulating collaboration between the research, industry and technology sectors. The announcement was made today by MTPConnect – the Medical Technology, Biotechnology, and Pharmaceutical (MTP) Industry Growth Centre and the Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP.

“These first investments from the BioMedTech Horizons program are set to fuel ongoing innovation in Australia, in line with MTPConnect’s priorities for growth of the medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector,” said Sue MacLeman, Managing Director and CEO of MTPConnect. “Biopen and the other 10 outstanding projects address identified global megatrends including precision healthcare and the digital evolution, as well as forecasted areas of unmet clinical need, such as immunology and advanced prosthetics.”

St. Vincent’s Director of Orthopedics, Professor Peter Choong, demonstrates the BioPen to the Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP [Image: St. Vincent’s]

The BioMedTech Horizons program is part of the Australian Government’s $20 million Medical Research Future Fund, which strategically invests in projects that will transform health and medical research to build the economy, change lives and contribute to the sustainability of the health system.

“The Turnbull Government is committed to improving the health services for all Australians and will continue to invest in better treatment, care and medical research,” said Hunt. “Our researchers are innovators and this investment will speed up the journey from idea to reality. These technologies have the potential to create better health outcomes for Australians, while driving investment and strengthening our economy. All Australians benefit from investment in health and medical research.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Sources: Swinburne University, St. Vincent’s Hospital]

 

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