Future of orthopaedic surgery is 3-D bio-printing

Not soon. But eventually NZ surgeons will custom 3-D print bones and cartilage for implanting. Will Harvie reports.


Imagine this future scenario: A surgeon has removed a cancer that’s eaten into a patient’s bone. The procedure has left a “void” or hole in the bone.


The surgeon then implants bone tissue created from the patient’s own cells and some regenerative scaffolding materials.

They have been layered and shaped by 3-D bio-printing to match the anatomical shape of the void.

In the right circumstances, the scaffolding materials biodegrade as the bone cells grow to fill the hole.

“Maybe in a year’s time, your knee or hip would be like it had never been damaged,” says Dr Tim Woodfield, principal investigator at the University of Otago’s Christchurch Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering lab. “You would have beautiful new tissue that would have grown into the old tissue and the scaffolding would have biodegraded.”


It might be 10-15 years away but that’s the promise of three-dimensional printing of human cells.

It’s one aspect of a field called regenerative medicine. “It’s the future of orthopaedic surgery” says assistant professor Woodfield.

He can imagine other future scenarios where 3-D bio-printing might help with orthopaedics. Full knee and hip replacements are now common. But the devices wear out after 10-15 years and need replacement. Doctors are also reluctant to undertake full transplants when the patients are in their 40s or 50s.

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