Custom-made artificial bones for implantation in humans are being printed using 3-D inkjet printers. Researchers at the Tissue Engineering Department at the University of Tokyo Hospital and venture capitalist Next 21 have performed trials on 10 people in the past year and a half.
Here's the process used to make an artificial bone: First, the patient's actual bone structure is scanned with X-ray and CT scanners. The resulting data is combined to make a 3-D computer model of the bone; a set of cross-sections is sent to the special 3-D inkjet printer.
The 3-D inkjet printer prints onto thin layers of powdered alpha-tricalcium phosphate (alpha-TCP); the printer "ink" is a water-based polymer that hardens the alpha-TCP. Successive laydowns of powder and polymer "prints out" the bone cross-sections to an accuracy of one millimeter.
The human trials were done on male and female patients, ranging in age from 10 to 54. The specific bones selected for printing and transplantation are important; facial bones are being targeted because the technique does not produce a structure that is capable of bearing weight and stress like the major bones of the body (like the femur or thigh bone).
However, the new artificial bones created from the alpha-tricalcium phosphate powder and polymer are ten times stronger than earlier implants made from hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also the main component of natural bone.
Researchers hope to make the technology commercially available by 2010.
Be sure to take a look at an earlier effort; see Bio Ink Jet Printing Muscle And Bone, which uses a somewhat different method. Progress has also been made in regenerating bones; see University of California Bone Regeneration, which details a technique that has been called the most significant advance in this field in decades.
(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction.)