Brain and Body

New Handheld Surgical "Pen" 3D Prints Human Stem Cells

April 5, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Photo credit: Screen capture from video by ACESElectromaterials

The fight against arthritis has begun!

Researchers from ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) in collaboration with orthopaedic surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, have developed a 3D printing stem cell “pen” capable of sculpting customized cartilage implants during live surgery.

Professor Peter Choong, director of Orthopaedics at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, developed the 3D printing pen, named “BioPen,” with ACES director Professor Gordon Wallace.

BioPen makes use of hydrogel technology and bioink to carry the living human stem cells, along with a low powered light source to solidify the ink. The BioPen works very similarly to a 3Doodler, but uses a mixture of the patient’s own stem cells with the hydrogel and bioink.

SEE ALSO: In a First, Scientists Have Grown Functional Heart Muscle From Stem Cells

Both the professors designed BioPen with the difficult constraints of surgery in mind. This is why they used 3D-printed medical grade plastic and titanium in the pen’s architecture. The pen is small, lightweight, ergonomic, and can be sterilized — making it a potential tool for surgeons in the future.

“The biopen project highlights both the challenges and exciting opportunities in multidisciplinary research. When we get it right we can make extraordinary progress at a rapid rate,” Professor Wallace said during a news release.

As described in their paper, they were already able to use the biopen to 3D print human cartilage directly into a patient during surgery. Lab experiments also revealed that the biopen resulted in more than a 97 percent cell survival rate after one week.

Here, Professor Choong demonstrates BioPen and its potential uses:


Arthritis is a common condition in the elderly where the cartilage of joints starts breaking down, resulting in extreme pain for sufferers. Because cartilage doesn’t have any blood supply and nerves, it can’t normally regrow back on its own. The only options for those suffering from arthritis is to undergo invasive surgeries, which can sometimes involve drilling into bone to help alleviate pain, or to receive pre-made implants into affected areas.

Now, the development of BioPen could change all that. It  will be able to provide a new way for clinicians to treat arthritis, by directly printing cartilage using the patient’s own stem cells during surgery.

With approximately 350 million people suffering from arthritis worldwide, BioPen will certainly have lot to offer in the near future!

Their findings were published in the journal Biofabrication.

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