Football and 3D Printing Cartilage

Are you ready for some footballllll… -shaped bioplastic cages used to 3D print cartilage? Please forgive that objectively horrible lead. But, with the Superbowl behind us, I knew many of you would be missing football.

But what does football have to do with cartilage other than injuries? Bear with me a moment.

Scientists can cultivate cartilage cells from stem cells but have had little control over the final shape. These types of stem cell clumps also tend to change their shape over time and often shrink.

To prevent this, the research team at TU Wien is working with a new approach: a laser-based high-resolution 3D printing system creates tiny, cage-like structures that look like teeny footballs with a 1/3mm diameter. These footballs serve as a compact building block structure scientists can assemble into any shape.

3D-printed spheroid, filled with living cells
Credit: TU Wien


Once scientists introduce stem cells to the little footballs, the cells fill the footballs quickly, reliably producing tissue elements where the cells are densely and evenly distributed throughout.

The crucial question was: do the cells of different spheroids also combine to form a uniform, homogeneous tissue?

“This is exactly what we have now been able to show for the first time,” says Prof. Aleksandr Ovsianikov, head of the 3D Printing and Biofabrication research group at TU Wien. “Under the microscope, you can see very clearly: neighboring spheroids grow together, the cells migrate from one spheroid to the other and vice versa, they connect seamlessly and result in a closed structure without any cavities – in contrast to other methods that have been used so far, in which visible interfaces remain between neighboring cell clumps.”

This new approach isn’t limited to cartilage tissue; scientists can also use it to tailor larger tissues, like bone tissue. The next challenge is how to 3D print blood vessel networks to feed larger tissues. We’re making progress on that, too.

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