Professor Peter Choong

Following a horrific motorsports accident, a driver is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery where doctors discover widespread damage has be done to the patient's leg bones and surrounding cartilage.

It's the perfect scenario for a surgical team to heat up the Bio Pen.

Researchers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science are aiming to provide surgeons precise control over the repair of the human skeleton by delivering live cells and growth factors to the site of  an injury – and doing that work in real time during an operation.

Using a seaweed extract, the handheld 'Bio Pen' developed at the University of Wollongong will allow for the design of customized implants accelerating the regeneration of functional bone and cartilage to be delivered to a patient at the time of surgery.

The Bio Pen will deliver cell material carried inside a biopolymer and alginate (a seaweed extract) inside a layer of gel material via extrusion onto the surface of a damaged segment of bone as surgeons essentially 'draw' to fill in the damaged area.

Utilizing a low-power ultraviolet light, the alginate 'soup' solidifies as it's applied. Embedded cells are then added layer-by-layer to construct a '3D scaffold' at the site of damage. Cells then begin to multiply and differentiate into muscle, bone or nerve units. The device allows for materials to be implanted with growth factors or drugs as part of the healing process.

The BioPen prototype, designed and built using the 3D printing equipment in the labs at the University of Wollongong, is now undergoing testing by a team of clinicians at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne.

Researchers have already used the Bio Pen to create new knee cartilage, using stem cells, around a 3D printed scaffolding.

Director of Orthopaedics at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne, Professor Peter Choong, says the Bio Pen  will serve as a critical tool at the time of reconstructive surgeries to treat all manner of defects and injuries.

"This type of treatment may be suitable for repairing acutely damaged bone and cartilage," Choong said. "From sporting to motor vehicle injuries, Professor Wallace's research brings together the science of stem cells and polymer chemistry to help surgeons design and personalize solutions for reconstructing bone and joint defects in real time."

According to Wallace, it's the research aspect of the development of the Bio Pen which will prove to have far-reaching consequences.

"The combination of materials science and next-generation fabrication technology is creating opportunities that can only be executed through effective collaborations such as this," ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace said. "Advances in 3D printing are enabling further hardware innovations in a rapid manner."