3D bone printing could help wounded veterans recover from blast injuries

Kaylah Jackson
January 18, 2019 - 2:49 pm

(Photo courtesy of Dr. John Szivek)

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Service members who survive blast injuries often have to continue living with a prosthetic or some type of metal in their limbs but what if there was a way you could grow their bones back? One research lab is trying to do just that.

In April of 2018, the Department of Defense gave a $2 million grant to the University of Arizona Orthopedic Research Lab to create 3D bone printing for U.S. service members.

Dr. John Szivek, a Professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Arizona, runs the lab and says this technology could transform the way disabled veterans live post-injury.

“We are essentially creating plastic scaffolds that are made out of a biocompatible material, a material that you can place in a patient without any rejections problems,” said Dr. Szivek.

The bone-shaped objects, called "scaffolds", carry the patient’s adult stem cells, and essentially allow the body to reproduce the bone where the injury occurred.

In talking with military doctors, Dr. Szviek says surgeons are excited about this option.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. John Szivek)

Rather than resorting to a prosthesis, the ability to regrow service member’s bone segments means a better quality of life in the future.

“Although many of the wounded warriors are young patients and adapt well to an external prosthesis, they can’t go back to the work they were doing…and in the process we lose their capabilities and their training,” said Dr. Szviek.

While the concept of re-growing bones isn’t unique to only this research lab, Dr. Szviek and this team are also using sensor technology on the scaffolds. The sensors can track a patient’s activity and movement, which means doctors can better understand how a service member returning to work impacts their bone healing.

By the end of the five-year grant, the hope is that the Federal Drug Administration will allow the research team to test these 3D printed bones on a small group of patients, and soon mass produce them for wounded service members in need.