Since the earliest, primitive 3D printing in 2012, development teams worldwide have sought effective medical applications for the technology. We’ve seen 3D-printed spinal components, cartilage implants, bionic arms, prosthetics, and more. Athletes and others benefit from 3D-printed casts that help bones mend faster and custom orthotics to ease recovery from plantar fasciitis.

Bioengineers from the Biomaterials Lab at Rice University and the University of Maryland’s Center for Engineering Complex Tissues (CECT) developed 3D-printed tissue implants designed to help athletes return to play faster following injuries. The technology is designed for knees, elbows, and ankles where bones and cartilage provide bearing surfaces for joints.

The Rice and Maryland team has reported success printing osteochondral scaffolding that acts like human tissue. Osteochondral tissue is cartilage on the outside and hard bone on the inside. Rice engineers mix polymers to mimic cartilage and ceramics to act like bone; both materials have integrated pores for blood flow and cells from the patient. With the 3D-printed implant, scientists hope to speed the healing process as a patient’s blood and cells move colonize the scaffolding, reaching the point where the artificial component is incorporated into the patient’s healed bone.

Work continues as the engineers focus on 3D-printing implants that fit patients perfectly to support and hasten the “knitting” that occurs with healing bone and cartilage. The collaboration in regenerative medical science when successful could lead to wider clinical applications for healing. The engineers discussed the results of the current stage of the joint effort in a report in Acta Biomaterialia.