Collaboration between researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) and orthopedic surgeons at St Vince’s Hospital in Melbourne has resulted in a 3D printing pen capable of creating custom cartilage implants on-the-fly.

The handheld biofabrication tool, known as the BioPen, secretes a gelatin–methacrylamide/hyaluronic acid–methacrylate (GelMa/HAMa) hydrogel loaded with human stem cells under a UV light (to solidify the ink). The idea is that a surgeon could repair damaged cartilage mid-surgery on a case-by-case basis by sculpting custom implants.

Science Daily describes it as a “landmark” proof-of-concept experiment. As the publication points out, surgeons don’t know the exact geometry of an implant prior to surgery which makes it extremely difficult to pre-prepare a traditional artificial cartilage implant.

In vitro testing demonstrated an impressive cell survival rate of 97 percent just one week later.

Professor Peter Choong, Director of Orthopaedics at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne and co-creator of the device, said the development of this type of technology is only possible with interactions between scientists and clinicians – clinicians to identify the problem and scientists to develop a solution.

Co-developer and ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace, said the BioPen project highlights both the challenges and exciting opportunities in multidisciplinary research. When they get it right, he added, they’ll be able to make extraordinary progress at a rapid rate.

Ironically enough, the team created the tool using 3D printed medical-grade plastic and titanium. The instrument is described as being lightweight, ergonomic and perhaps most important of all, sterilisable.