MIT Produces Synthetic Bone With 3-D Printing

The artificial bone mimics human bones, but it's even stronger.


MIT scientists can make this…on a printer. Bone photo via Shutterstock

What if next time you broke a bone, instead of going to the doctor for a cast, you just printed out a new one? It sounds certifiably insane, but it’s actually not.

MIT announced this week that its researchers have found a way to produce synthetic bone using 3-D printers, which work by converting digitized three-dimensional data into physical objects by printing layer after layer of the model. Scientists have long wanted to mimic bone for its strength and durability—made possible by the combination of soft, stretchy collagen and a hard, brittle mineral called hydroxyapatite—but haven’t previously had a way to do it. That all changed when MIT researchers, who published their findings in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, found a way to first create a computerized model that imitates the polymers and makeup of bone, and then use a dual-polymer 3-D printer to print the geometric patterns and bring it to life. In a report from MIT, the study’s lead author, Markus Buehler, says:

“The geometric patterns we used in the synthetic materials are based on those seen in natural materials like bone or nacre, but also include new designs that do not exist in nature,” says Buehler, who has done extensive research on the molecular structure and fracture behavior of biomaterials. His co-authors are graduate students Leon Dimas and Graham Bratzel, and Ido Eylon of the 3-D printer manufacturer Stratasys. “As engineers we are no longer limited to the natural patterns. We can design our own, which may perform even better than the ones that already exist.”

What’s more, after the synthetic materials were put to the test, researchers found that they were actually more resistant to fractures than actual human bone. Perhaps even more amazing, the whole 3-D printing process only takes a few hours and is relatively cost-effective, meaning it could plausibly be a widely-used technology in the future.

And though the MIT report says that such artificial materials may someday be used to construct entire buildings, we think it could mean big things for biomedical research, too. If the models truly function like natural bone, what’s to stop them from being used for amputees or babies born without certain bones? The technique would, of course, likely need to be adapted for a human body, but we think making the necessary changes would be more than worthwhile.