Image courtesy of MIT News.

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3-D printing has left its mark on many markets: dental crowns, dental imaging, hearing aids, and limb prosthetics to name a few. Typically, these devices are engineered to replace or support bones, and thus are printed from hard materials. Recently, MIT engineers have designed moldable 3-D printed mesh materials matches the moldabilitity and dexterity of soft tissues, such as muscle or tendons. The mesh materials can be tailored to match the genetic make-up of the soft tissue for which the mesh is supporting.

“This work is new in that it focuses on the mechanical properties and geometries required to support soft tissues,” says Sebastian Pattinson, who conducted the research as a postdoc at MIT.

The engineering team printed a flexible mesh, designed to be used in an ankle brace. They manipulated the mesh to prevent the ankle from curving inward, and allowed the joint to move in other directions. In addition, the engineers also designed a knee brace, in which could bend with the knee. Finally, they fabricated a glove with the 3-D mesh sewn onto the top, allowing the mesh to move with the individuals knuckles.

“3-D-printed clothing and devices tend to be very bulky,” Pattinson says. “We were trying to think of how we can make 3-D-printed constructs more flexible and comfortable, like textiles and fabrics.”

The research team were inspired by collagen. Under microscopic conditions, collagen appears as strands intertwined, almost like loose braided elastic bands. Collagen stretches easily, but once the material is stretched, it doesn’t stretch further. This great combination of flexible-yet-firm works perfectly when incorporated into soft tissue or sports medicine devices.

“The beauty of this technique lies in its simplicity and versatility. Mesh can be made on a basic desktop 3-D printer, and the mechanics can be tailored to precisely match those of soft tissue,” Hart says.

According to iData Research, changing American population demographics is the main driver of growth in the US orthopedic soft tissue market. As the baby boomer generations reaches retirement, their need for soft tissue arthroscopic surgery increases. Soft tissue repair is required for wear and tear of tendons, ligaments and cartilage. This combined with the popularization of active lifestyles has made the need for orthopedic soft tissue repair increase. Arthroscopic surgery is becoming the preferable procedure as it is less invasive and reduces recovery time.

“There’s potential to make all sorts of devices that interface with the human body,” Pattinson says. Surgical meshes, orthoses, even cardiovascular devices like stents — you can imagine all potentially benefiting from the kinds of structures we show.”

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For Further Information

More on the orthopedic soft tissue repair market in the U.S. can be found in a series of reports published by iData Research entitled the U.S Market Report Suite for Orthopedic Soft Tissue Repair and Sports Medicine.