Doctors Have Successfully 3D Printed A Knee Meniscus

Recently, doctors at Columbia University Medical Center have been able to merge 3D printing and the power of MRIs to create a scaffold of a knee meniscus. They can make a replica of the meniscus from 3D MRI images and print a new one.  This breakthrough, already tested successfully in sheep, could revolutionize the way joints and ligaments are treated when damaged or worn.

Project leader Jeremy Mao said:

This accomplishment is a first as the scaffold is infused with two recombinant human proteins: connective growth factor (CTGF) and transforming growth factor β3 (TGFβ3). Dr. Mao and his team found that the sequential delivery of these two proteins attracts existing stem cells from the body and induces them to form meniscal tissue.

Torn and damaged meniscus is more prevalent in today’s society, as from younger ages people are playing more sports and staying active far longer than before. The wear and tear on a person’s body are often felt in the joints first. The meniscus is like a shock absorber in the knee between the femur and the tibia. The stress of many different things like sport or advancing age can cause tears or worn out meniscus which can cause pain and hasten arthritis. Frequently in sports injuries like this can end careers or at the very least cause a loss of performance.

Clinical Trials In Sheep

Tear of Medial Meniscus
Tear of Medial Meniscus

The first trials were done in sheep – the doctors were able to create the 3D subsumable printed meniscus which then treated with the proteins and implanted in the sheep were able to replace the damaged meniscus. The sheep was back to normal function in the affected joint in about six weeks.

Now, think of this from the point of view of an athlete, or someone who is older and become immobile due to an injury or wear and tear. It changes things and in a good way for both. Right now, there are few things that can be done for a torn meniscus. They can, sometimes, stitch small tears or remove it completely, or have tissue from other parts of their body harvested, shaped and implanted. This procedure also can be done with tissue harvested from cadavers. These risky procedures have a low success rate and adverse side effects such as rejection and separation can occur.

If the trials that they are seeking further funding for go well, people will have a viable way to be able to recover from injuries to the meniscus. Successful trials can open the door for treating other joint and ligament damage. Older folks who are suffering from wear and tear can get mobility and quality of life back. Athletes can have a chance at reversing career ending injuries. The fact that, so far, the trials have been able to do this without stem cell treatments, and instead prompting the body to rebuild the meniscus on its own is also an accomplishment. While many advances are being made in stem cell therapies, getting the body to repair itself lessens the steps involved and risks.

Dr. Mao said:

We envision that personalized meniscus scaffolds, from initial MRI to 3D printing, could be completed within days,” said Dr. Mao. The personalized scaffolds will then be shipped to clinics and hospitals within a week.

There are over 1 million surgeries on meniscus tears each year in the US alone. This procedure should lower the rate by reducing the number of knees that end up requiring multiple surgeries, and it does open the door to living a more active life as we age. Columbia University Medical Center researchers headed up by Dr. Jeremy Mao are confident that this procedure will be a success in humans, and are currently getting funding in place to move to the clinical trial.

The world of medical science is starting to intersect yet again with science fiction in new ways. What is coming next is both exciting, and the limits are being stretched every day what we can do.

The full paper on the procedure is available on Science Transitional Medicine.

What do you think about the 3D printed meniscus treatment, is it a good breakthrough or is it taking us down the rabbit hole that may not end up with the desired results?

Images from Wikimedia Commons and Columbia University Medical Center.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.