3D printing pen lets surgeons draw cells on damaged bones, speeding recovery

A “bio pen” that allows surgeons to draw layers of healing cells on damaged bones and cartilage is closer to entering clinical trials after its creators handed it over to scientists at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, for further refinement.

Developed at the University of Wollongong in Australia, the pen extrudes cells mixed with a biologically friendly material like seaweed extracts. The mixture is encased in a gel, which can then be painted on in layers. Each layer is cured with an ultraviolet light.

The cells are painted onto damaged bone and cartilage sites during surgery. The cells multiply and grow into nerves, muscles or bone, healing the damaged section.

The technology could be used to treat severe damage from, say, a car accident or to repair a defect. Surgeons already have ways to encourage new growth, but the pen allows them to precisely place cells on the fly.

The pen is an extension of a recent project by the same Wollongong researchers, in which they grew knee cartilage from 3D printed stem cells.

While the pen’s form resembles the 3Doodler, which prints plastic, curing the gel with a UV light is a trick from stereolithographic printing. 3D printing cells isn’t new either. But it’s great to see 3D printing cells pop up as an actual handheld surgical tool, and not just a concept confined to the lab.