Implants that fix early problems in bones and joints before they become too serious are among the technologies that could be developed in a new UK R&D centre.

Dr Jonathan Jeffers (© Imperial College London)

The Medical Device Prototype and Manufacture Unit, being established at Imperial College London with £1.7m in funding from the EPSRC, will use additive manufacturing and advanced imaging techniques to print parts with nanoscale features and then study how they interact with the human body.

The human musculoskeletal system has not caught up with improvements in life expectancy over the last 150 years or so, meaning bone and joint disorders are now one of the biggest expenditures in the NHS, according to project leader Dr Jonathan Jeffers at Imperial College.

“The current generation of orthopaedic implants are brilliant, but they tend to treat the end-stage disease, and are very invasive, because they involve chopping out the entire joint,” he said. “What surgeons need is something that can treat younger patients, to try to prevent the disease progressing.”

The researchers plan to produce early intervention implants using material that is tailored to make the surrounding bone stronger, by controlling the strain experienced.

They also hope to make smart instruments and implants that can measure biomarkers in synovial fluid to measure joint health, and new biomaterials such as nanoneedles that can bypass the membrane of bacteria cells and act as an anti-infection coating for the implantable devices.

Finally, they hope to manufacture ligament, tendon and capsule repair patches designed with a Velcro-like surface on one side, so that they adhere to soft tissue, but with a low-friction, sliding surface on the other side.

The researchers will use a Renishaw titanium additive manufacture machine, and a small, two-photon lithography system, to produce parts from the nanoscale up to the millimetre scale, said Jeffers. A micro-CT scanner and 3D digital microscope will then be used to study the parts they produce in great detail.

“These technologies will enable material to be manufactured with the same mechanical properties as bone, which means the bone will accept the implant better than they currently do,” Jeffers added.