About 27 million people in the United States suffer from osteoarthritis. This can result in pain, swelling, and eventually even loss of motion in the joint. Knees and joints in the hand are particularly affected. In order to combat this degenerative disease, a group of researchers led by Rock Taun of the University of Pittsburgh have developed a way to manufacture replacement cartilage using a 3D printer. He presented his work on Sunday at the Experimental Biology 2014 conference in San Diego.
While there are pain relievers and medications capable of of treating the symptoms of osteoarthritis, there is nothing currently available to reverse or cure the disease. The exact cause is unknown, but it is related to aging and weight, as the water content in the cartilage decreases over time. In severe cases of the knee or hip, joint replacement is the only way to alleviate the pain and increase mobility. The procedure is very drastic, and many people with advanced disease will have to go through it multiple times.
“Osteoarthritis has a severe impact on quality of life, and there is an urgent need to understand the origin of the disease and develop effective treatments,” Taun stated. “We hope that the methods we’re developing will really make a difference, both in the study of the disease and, ultimately, in treatments for people with cartilage degeneration or joint injuries.” Taun also co-directs the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine and says this technique could also be used to help those with battlefield injuries.
In hopes of developing a new form of treatment, Taun sought to manufacture replacement cartilage derived from the patient’s own stem cells that could be added into the joint. The technique uses a 3D printer which intertwines stem cells, biological growth factors, and a scaffold for to give the cartilage shape. While this isn’t the first time this technique has been attempted, it has the distinct advantage of using visible light as opposed to UV light, which can cause damage to the cells and DNA. Taun hopes to refine this technique so that the materials can be printed directly into a patient’s joint by a doctor using a catheter-like printer.
Taun’s lab made another huge advancement by creating a 3D printed model of the interface of bone and cartilage, which may one day give scientists a unique opportunity to study how the disease develops, progresses, and how it can be treated with new drugs. This tissue-on-a-chip currently uses 96 units of tissue that are 4x4x8 millimeters.
The researchers are currently attempting to integrate the 3D printing technique with a previous technique that involves nanofiber spinning, in order to create a stronger, more natural scaffold for the cartilage.