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Scientists Engineer 3D-Printed Bricks That Aid in Bone and Soft Tissue Repair

The Lego-inspired cubes could one day lead to lab-made organs for human transplant.

Scientists have engineered tiny, 3D-printed bricks that can heal broken bones and damaged soft tissue. The novel invention could one day lead to lab-made organs for human transplant.

RELATED: MATERIAL THAT REPLICATES HUMAN BONE TISSUE DEVELOPED BY OREGON RESEARCHERS 

The cubes are roughly the size of a small flea (0.06 inches cubed or 1.5 millimeters cubed) and were inspired by Lego blocks. In action, they serve as scaffolding on which both hard and soft tissue can regrow better than what most promising contemporary regeneration methods offer.

"Our patent-pending scaffolding is easy to use; it can be stacked together like Legos and placed in thousands of different configurations to match the complexity and size of almost any situation," said Luiz Bertassoni, Ph.D., who led the technology's development and is an associate professor in the OHSU School of Dentistry and an associate professor of biomedical engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine.

The cubes function like "microcages" that can be stacked together to repair broken bones. More complex bone fractures are usually treated through the implementation of metal rods or plates to stabilize the bone.

Next, bio-compatible scaffolding materials packed with powders or pastes that promote healing are inserted. The new scaffolding system allows its hollow blocks to be filled with small amounts of gel containing various growth factors that are placed where they are needed most.

In rat bones, the study found that growth factor-filled blocks led to about three times more blood vessel growth than conventional scaffolding material.

"The 3D-printed microcage technology improves healing by stimulating the right type of cells to grow in the right place, and at the right time," said study co-author Ramesh Subbiah, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in Bertassoni's OHSU lab who specializes in growth factor delivery. 

Since a variety of growth factors can be placed inside each block, this will enable surgeons to repair tissue and bones more precisely and quickly by targeting the right treatment for each case. Now, that's an exciting development!

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