Scientists in Wales are 3D printing cartilage for people born without body parts or who have facial features due to scarring on the face.
Using human cells and plant material, the experts say they can print ears, noses and other parts to aid in facial reconstruction.
The technology would benefit those who have suffered facial scarring from burns, cancer and other types of trauma.
The Scar Free Foundation has launched a three-year £2.5 million program for ‘regenerative research’ into the technology based at Swansea University with the aim of moving forward into clinical trials involving humans.
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A £2.5 million three-year research program funded by the Scar Free Foundation and Health and Care Research Wales at Swansea University aims to advance the development of 3D bioprinted facial cartilage
3D-printed human cells and plant materials could form replacement body parts and replace plastic prostheses previously used for people with facial trauma
According to the Scar Free Foundation, patients with facial loss have told researchers that existing plastic dentures didn’t feel “part of them” and would rather have their own tissue used for reconstruction.
The program will therefore tackle this by creating a custom-made ‘cartilage’ scaffold on which the patient’s own stem cells grow.
This avoids the need to take cartilage from elsewhere in the body, which can lead to painful surgery and further scarring.
The first part of the process involves taking human cartilage-specific stem cells from patients and nanocellulose (derived from plants) to create a printable “bioink.”
3D printing technology – also known as additive manufacturing – is the process of creating an object by depositing material layer by layer
A close-up of a 3D-printed ear with unique bioink from the Institute of Life Sciences at Swansea University
“The impact of this work could be very exciting,” said the project’s leader, Professor Iain Whitaker of Swansea University, the only professor of plastic surgery in Wales.
“It would give us, as surgeons, the ability to take cells from the human body, expand them and put them in an ink that can literally be printed into a three-dimensional structure.” [and] implanted back into the human body.
“This would mean, from our point of view as surgeons, that we wouldn’t have to take tissue from elsewhere in the body, so it would limit scarring, limit pain and give you more options to help people reconstruct defects.”
3D printers have been used to manufacture everything from prosthetic limbs to robots. This version emits a ‘bio-ink’ made from human cartilage-specific stem cells and nanocellulose (derived from plants)
Trainee plastic surgeon Tom Jovic holds a 3D printed ear at Swansea Universitysea Institute of Life Sciences
3D printing uses software to create a three-dimensional design before printing it by robotic equipment.
Automated robotic arms have a nozzle at the end that emits the printing substance – in this case cells and plant materials – layer by layer.
The Scar Free Foundation’s program will determine the ideal combination of cells to grow new cartilage and ‘optimize nanocellulose bioinks for 3D bioprinting’.
It hopes to demonstrate that these bioinks are safe, non-toxic and well tolerated by the immune system prior to clinical trials in humans for facial reconstruction.
Simon Weston, a Welsh veteran of the British Army who was recovering from severe burns sustained during the Falklands War, is the Foundation’s lead ambassador.
“It’s fantastic that this research is taking place and what we’re going to do is amazing,” he said.
Simon Weston, a Welsh veteran of the British Army, has recovered from severe burns sustained during the Falklands War
‘This new research – bioprinting ear and nasal cartilage made from the patient’s own cells – would have made a big difference to me.
“There simply wasn’t the research or the opportunity to rebuild my ears at the time — I literally had to watch them fall off.
“This study also avoids the need for skin grafts from other parts of the body — a process that in itself can be very painful and leave new scars.”
According to the Scar Free Foundation, the program will also examine the impact of facial scars on mental health.
One in 100 people in the UK have significant facial differences, which can take a toll on their personal mental health.
3D PRINT TECHNOLOGY MAKES OBJECTS BY DEPOSITING MATERIALS ONE LAYER AT A TIME
First invented in the 1980s by Chuck Hull, an engineer and physicist, 3D printing technology – also known as additive manufacturing – is the process of creating an object by depositing material layer by layer.
Just as an inkjet printer adds individual ink dots to form an image, a 3D printer adds material where it is needed, based on a digital file.
Many conventional manufacturing processes involve cutting away excess material to make a part, and this can result in wastage of up to 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) for every pound of useful material, according to the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
In contrast, some 3D printing processes use about 98 percent of the raw material in the finished part, and the method can be used to make small components using plastics and metal powders, also experimenting with chocolate and other foods. as biomaterials similar to human cells.
3D printers have been used to manufacture everything from prosthetic limbs to robots, and the process follows these basic steps:
Create a 3D blueprint with computer-aided design (CAD) software
· Preparing the printer, including refilling the raw materials such as plastics, metal powders and binding solutions.
· Initiate the printing process via the machine that builds the object.
3D printing processes can vary, but material extrusion is the most common, and it works like a glue gun: the print material is heated until it liquefies and is extruded through the print nozzle
· Using information from the digital file, the design is split into two-dimensional cross-sections so that the printers know where to place the material
· The nozzle applies the polymer in thin layers, often 0.1 millimeters (0.004 inches) thick.
· The polymer quickly solidifies and bonds to the layer below before the build platform lowers and the printhead adds another layer (depending on the object, the whole process can take from minutes to days).
· After printing is complete, each object requires some post-processing ranging from detaching the object from the build platform to removing support to removing excess powders.