'Biopen' lets doctors 3D print cartilage during surgery

Doctors can match stem cell implants to patients with high precision.

If you need knee replacement surgery in the future, doctors may be able to create a custom-made joint from your own stem cells. A team from St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne, have developed the Biopen, a type of 3D printer that uses "ink" made from hydrogel and stem cells. While 3D printing stem cells isn't new, the exact shape of a patient's cartilage often can't be known until they're cut open. Using the device, surgeons can precisely customize the joint to the patient with surgical "scaffolds," then permanently harden the biogel using ultraviolet light.

Built from medical-grade plastic and titanium in consultation with doctors, the Biopen is supposedly up to the challenges of an operating room. "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," says Professor Peter Choong, Director of Orthopaedics at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne.

The process yields a very high 97 percent survival rate for the cells. Doctors developed a Biopen prototype several years ago (see the video, above), but refined it considerably, according to a new research paper. The same device could be used in other forms of surgery where custom tissue regeneration is needed, but there's no word yet on when it will be tested on patients or commercialized.