Researchers from Washington State University (WSU) have created a bone-like material for use in orthopaedics and dentistry using a 3D printer.
The structure is said to look, feel and in some cases act like bone, and according to the study in Dental Materials, successful in vitro tests have already been conducted.
When used in conjunction in actual bone, the material essentially acts as a scaffold for the bone to grow on, before dissolving without any negative effects, the team claims. After just a week in a medium with human bone cells, the material is able to support a network of new bone cells.
"If a doctor has a CT scan of a defect, we can convert it to a CAD file and make the scaffold according to the defect," Susmita Bose, co-author and a professor in WSU's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, said.
One of the main findings of the new paper is the discovery that adding to silicon and zinc to calcium phosphate, the main substance, more than doubles its strength.
This finding is the latest in a series from four years of work between members of the chemistry, materials science, biology and manufacturing departments, and a year spent altering a ProMetal 3D printer, designed for making metal objects.
An inkjet spray is applied over a bed of powder in layers around half the width of a human hair to create the structure, a cylinder around the size of a pencil eraser.
3D printers are believed to hold great promise in the development of biomaterials, with a team in Germany creating artificial blood vessels by combining the technology with two-photon polymerisation to create a greater degree of precision.
Dr Gunter Tovar, project manager of the BioRap programme at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology in Stuttgart, explained: "We are establishing a basis for applying rapid prototyping to elastic and organic biomaterials.
"The vascular systems illustrate very dramatically what opportunities this technology has to offer, but that's definitely not the only thing possible."