3-D-printable implants may ease damaged knees

A cartilage-mimicking material created by researchers at Duke University may one day allow surgeons to 3-D print replacement knee parts that are custom-shaped to each patient's anatomy.

Human knees come with a pair of built-in shock absorbers called the menisci. These ear-shaped hunks of cartilage, nestled between the thigh and shin bones, cushion every step we take. But a lifetime of wear-and-tear - or a single wrong step during a game of soccer or tennis - can permanently damage these key supports, leading to pain and an increased risk of developing arthritis.

The hydrogel-based material the researchers developed is the first to match human cartilage in strength and elasticity while also remaining 3-D-printable and stable inside the body. To demonstrate how it might work, the researchers used a $300 3-D printer to create custom menisci for a plastic model of a knee.

"We've made it very easy now for anyone to print something that is pretty close in its mechanical properties to cartilage, in a relatively simple and inexpensive process," said Benjamin Wiley, an associate professor of chemistry at Duke and author on the paper, which appears online in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

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