12/03/2011 06:32 am ET

3D Printers May Be The Key To Repairing Damaged Bones

A 3D printer is being used to create new, bone-like material capable of supporting bone growth that rresearchers at Washington State University say could be used to repair damaged tissue and broken bones in patients.

The new material would act like scaffolding, promoting the growth of new cells before dissolving into the body naturally.

According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, nearly 75% of hip, spine and distal forearm fractures occur among patients 65-years-old or over and the risk of broken bones in general peaks between the ages of 50 and 59, making the announcement of WSU's groundbreaking work welcome news to millions of older Americans afflicted with osteoporosis and struggling with weak and brittle bones.

Professor Susmita Bose, who helped carry out the research and co-authored a report on its findings in the Dental Materials Journal - and a post50 herself - remarked on the material's potential benefits: "For example, the degradation that occurs in the broken jaw of an older adult takes place quite rapidly, but if we can control the chemistry and shape of a scaffold specific to that injury, we can immediately begin work on repairing that jaw."

Professor Bose's team's breakthrough came when they discovered a way to double the strength of the main ceramic powder - calcium phosphate - by adding silica and zinc oxide.

To create the scaffold shapes they altered the functions of a printer that had originally been designed to produce 3D metal objects. It uses an inkjet printer head to spray plastic binding liquid over a bed of powder to create a layer in the scaffold. Each layer is just half the width of a human hair.

Figuring out the material's successful concoction required a 4-year effort involving chemistry, manufacturing and $1.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health. But while it may cost an arm and a leg to replace the printer cartridges, researchers say doctors could be using the process to custom-order replacement bone tissue in a few years time and at about a tenth of the cost of traditional techniques.