Superflexible, 3-D printed “bones” trigger new growth

Material could help surgeons replace damaged or broken bones

3-D printed bone scaffolds

BONE UP   New 3-D printed bone scaffolds, such as this one of human vertebrae, may speed up the healing process, researchers say.

A.E. Jakus

Hyperelastic bone
ˈhī-per ə̇ˈlastik bōn n.

A highly flexible 3-D printed scaffold used to repair broken or damaged bones.

“Hyperelastic bones” don’t impart Stretch Armstrong abilities, but they could give surgeons a quick, inexpensive way to repair bone breaks. Created by Ramille Shah, a materials science engineer at Northwestern University in Chicago, and colleagues, the new superflexible material can be 3-D printed into femurs, skullcaps and other bone shapes.

The durable material is a mix of an elastic polymer plus hydroxyapatite, a calcium mineral found in human bones and teeth. Once implanted, the material’s mineral makeup encourages real bone to start growing within a month to replace the scaffold, the team reported in the Sept. 28 Science Translational Medicine.

So far, the “bones” have been tested only in animals. In rats, spinal implants stimulated tissue and bone growth just as well as natural grafts, with no signs of rejection. In a macaque with skull damage, an implant almost seamlessly integrated with the monkey’s natural skull tissue within a month. Because the material is malleable, surgeons can fix it in place without glue or sutures, Shah says. A future of easily replacing missing, damaged or deformed bones may no longer be such a stretch.

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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