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Cartilage gives shape to areas of the body and softens the joints between bones. When cartilage is damaged, it can cause a great deal of pain and mobility issues. Furthermore, most cartilage does not heal well, due to a lack of blood supply to affected areas.
A better way to treat cartilage issues would be a game-changer for million people that suffer from arthritis, as well as those who require hip and knee replacement surgeries. For years, medical researchers have studied the possibility of using animal tissues and cells to produce human cartilage.
In 2013, Cornell University researchers used a 3D printer to grow human ears-shaped cartilage from cow cells, a step towards developing custom ears for people with ear defects. That same year, Princeton University scientists reported that some of the 3D printed ears they created allowed for hearing at sonic frequencies that are far outside the range of the natural human ear.
Current procedures of regenerating cartilage involve implanting cartilage-building stem cells in a framework of implantable material and growing the cells in conditions comparable to those in the human body.
Bioprinting, or the creation of biological material with 3D printing, is increasingly looking like a fantastic possibility for fixing damaged cartilage. A major breakthrough in the 3D printing of cartilage came in 2017, when European researchers announced the development of a printing technique that essential stem cells could survive.
The new system for generating cartilage started with cartilage cells extracted from patients who underwent knee surgery. Those cells were manipulated back into stem cells, which were then encapsulated in cellulose material and printed using a 3D bioprinter. When they survived the printing system, the stem cells were treated with growth stimulants, which prompted them to multiply and differentiate, becoming cartilage.
Scientists say the cartilage generated in their procedure was so comparable to human cartilage, experienced surgeons could not distinguish the difference. However, the scientists did mention of one barrier they still have to overcome: the sort of cellulose used in the process likely isn't well-suited for the human body. The team said they want to explore different scaffold materials that can be digested and absorbed by the body, leaving behind only the endogenous cartilage. They also pointed out that this technique calls for copious amounts of live stem cells.
Crocodiles: A Promising Source of Cartilage Growth Factor
Crocodiles have an extremely high volume of cartilage in the bodies for land animals, and this high amount of cartilage helps them move effectively both on land and in water.
Recent work announced by an Australian research team pointed to significant progress on the 3D-printing of cartilage by using extracted from the crocodile rib cage, which is rich in growth-promoting proteoglycans. The team said these valuable proteins could make a biological ‘soup’ that might promote the body’s own adult stem cells to become cartilage.
A 3D printer could bio-print cartilage explants that might ultimately be injected or placed into damaged human joints.
The research scientists said they used a decellularization method to get rid of the DNA and other unwanted crocodile material, making the proteoglycans fit for human explant by eliminating anything that might be rejected by the human body.
The team said their next step is to promote cartilage repair, which is a big challenge and especially relevant for elderly populations. The scientists added that their technology could possibly replace the arthroscopy treatment that many cartilage-injury patients currently go through.
Incidentally, study scientists gathered crocodile cartilage from a commercial crocodile farm that is very progressive in its waste management means. The facility sends crocodile skin to Italian fashion houses and meat to the domestic meat market. Cartilage has been one of the farm's waste products, but the study team said they were happy to acquire it fresh from the farm.