The team at the University of Alberta used a specially designed hydrogel that can be mixed with cells harvested from a patient, then printed in a specific shape captured through 3D imaging. The material is then cultured in a lab over several weeks to become functional cartilage.
“It takes a lifetime to make cartilage in an individual, while this method takes about four weeks,” said Adetola Adesida, a professor of surgery in the university’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. “So you still expect that there will be some degree of maturity that it has to go through, especially when implanted in the body. But functionally it’s able to do the things that cartilage does.”
Adesida led the study, published in The FASEB Journal, with Yaman Boluk, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering, and graduate student Xiaoyi Lan. Their aim is to provide a better solution for surgeons to safely restore the features of skin cancer patients living with nasal cartilage defects after surgery.
Boluk said that the 3D printed cartilage has the necessary mechanical properties and strength required to function with a material that is 92 per cent water at the outset.
Many patients diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer will have lesions on their noses and require surgery for removal, which often involves removing cartilage and causes facial disfiguration. Surgeons traditionally take cartilage from patients’ ribs and reshape it during reconstructive surgery, but complications can occur here, explained Adesida.
“When the surgeons reconstruct the nose, it is straight. But when it adapts to its new environment, it goes through a period of remodelling where it warps, almost like the curvature of the rib,” Adesida said.
Another issue, he added, is that the rib compartment protects the lungs and opening it to restructure the nose leaves patients at risk of collapsed lungs, which can be fatal.
Researchers said their work is an example of both precision medicine and regenerative medicine, with the 3D bioprinted cartilage removing the risk of lung infection and severe scarring at the site of patients’ ribs.
Patients could have a small biopsy taken from their nose in around 30 minutes and from there, custom cartilage shapes could be created for them, Adesida said. “We can even bank the cells and use them later to build everything needed for the surgery,” he added.
The team is now testing whether the cartilage developed through 3D printing would retain its properties after transplantation in animal models. Clinical trials are expected within the next two to three years.