It sounds amazing, but it the not-too-distant future, we may be able to replace a torn meniscus cartilage in the knee with a personalized implant made with a 3-D printer. A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries, affecting millions of Americans each year.
The meniscus is the wedge-shaped cartilage between the shin and thigh bones that cushions and protects the joint. If it tears and needs to be removed, either partially or completely, the knee loses that cushioning and becomes more prone to developing arthritis.
Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery and Columbia University Medical Center are working on replicating the knee’s protective cartilage using a personalized implant made with a 3-D printer. Three-D printing is a process that makes three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The 3D-printed object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is formed.
The goal is to make an exact replica of a patient’s meniscus with a perfect fit to provide an effective and long-lasting repair, lowering the risk of arthritis.
We are working with researchers at Columbia University Medical Center, who have created a 3-D printed implant, or scaffold, which is infused with human growth factors that should prompt the body to regenerate the meniscus on its own.
The process begins with MRI scans of the meniscus in the uninjured knee. The scans are then converted into a 3-D image and put into the 3-D printer, which produces a scaffold in the exact shape of the meniscus. It takes about 30 minutes to print.
The scaffold is made of a biodegradable polymer that is also used to make surgical sutures. It is infused with two human proteins that attract stem cells from the body and induce them to form meniscal tissue. The personalized meniscus scaffolds could potentially be completed within a matter of days.
Once the scaffold is inserted into the knee, meniscus tissue regenerates over the next several months. The scaffold later dissolves and is eliminated by the body, and the new meniscus remains.
This research, although preliminary, represents an innovative approach to meniscus regeneration and could potentially be applicable to the many thousands of patients who undergo meniscus removal each year.
The research study was recently published in the online edition of Science Translational Medicine, and clinical trials could be a couple of years away.
Dr. Scott Rodeo is an orthopedic surgeon and the co-chief emeritus of the Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service at Hospital for Special Surgery. He specializes in sports medicine injuries of the knee, shoulder, ankle, and elbow. Dr. Rodeo is associate team physician for the New York Giants and has taken care of the team through three Super Bowl appearances.