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Summary

3D printing is changing the world by providing new ways to make anything from cars to houses to rocket turbines. But what if you could use living cells as the ink? Could you print an organ? Could you print the human body?

Day to day, I work in a small research lab in St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. At the moment we’re up on the 5th floor of the old Daly wing--tucked away in rooms which served as psychiatric wards in the 60s and 70s—yet, still (I believe) we are working at the forefront of medical science. We run the hospital’s biofabrication suite.

Here, I’m part of a team figuring out ways of creating artificial replicas of human body parts.

Once implanted, these spare parts are designed to stimulate the body to regenerate itself, then to degrade naturally, dissolving in the bloodstream and eventually excreted.

Central to our research is 3D printing technology—a tool which is revolutionizing research across many disciplines. In medicine, it’s already been used to fabricate custom prosthetics, cranial implants, and hips that perfectly reproduce the patient’s unique anatomy. 

These amazing advances have been achieved using highly engineered synthetic materials--biocompatible plastics and metals, like titanium. But we want to go one further.

We’re printing with cells.

This new technology of "bioprinting" has the potential to revolutionise medicine-- one day, we want to use them to print organs and tissues for transplanation, using the patient's own cells. Though printed, functioning organs are probably many years away, other groundbreaking applications using bioprinting may be just around the corner.

Description

I’m part of team (that includes world class surgeons, biologists, biomedical engineers and 3D printing experts) developing a handheld ‘Biopen’ which will enable surgeons to deliver a healing salve of stem cells to a wound, potentially accelerating healing. The first application we have in mind is restoration of the articular cartilage of the knee, a debilitating injury which the human body cannot repair on its own.

Our approach is potentially revolutionary as it will allow surgeons to deliver cartilage cells with control over cell density and orientation, as well as over the stiffness of the deposited "bioink". This control of the mechanical properties is vital-- the stiffness of natural knee cartilage changes about 100 fold in just 2 mm (e.g. it's much more 'springy' near the surface, and much more rigid closer to the bone'). 

We are just on the outset of this project, and early funding sources (such as this competition) could make all the difference in helping us turn this idea into a clinical reality.

Additional Details

Acknowledgements: The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), University of Wollongong, St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne. 

Team Biopen: Cathal D O’Connell, Claudia Di Bella, Cheryl Augustine, Fletcher Thompson, Stephen Beirne, Rhys Cornock, Christopher J Richards, Zhilian Yue, Justin Bourke, Anita Quigley, Robert Kapsa, Peter Choong*, Gordon G Wallace*

*Project leaders

Video Credits

Consulting Artist: Gyöngyvér Engloner

Music: "Luminescence" by Ben Murrie

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I'm a materials scientist at the University of Wollongong, based at St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne. My background is in physics/nanotechnology. Current research: 3d printing using living cells a...