Biopen tech might change the way we heal our bones

Have you ever heard of WobbleWorks? WobbleWorks is a technology company founded in 2010 that raised more than $30,000 in funding via Kickstarter to create advanced technology for the public. Their first product, the 3Doodler, is expected to start shipping this March. The 3Doodler is a pen that allows one to draw 3D objects by quickly melting and re-solidifying the plastic “ink” tube. WobbleWorks declares on their website that this is “the world’s first 3D printing pen,” but the 3Doodler isn’t the only 3D printing device we should be excited about.

Recently, a group of scientists at the University of Wollongong in Australia have created the “BioPen”, a tool that may revolutionize bone repair and joint injuries. The tool projects “stem cell” ink; stem cells are known for being able to help create new bones, muscles, or nerves (Popular Science “A Pen that 3-D Prints Bone Right Onto Patients,” 12.12.13).

Currently, surgeons are able to directly inject stem cells onto sites of damage. While this process has been effective in repairing injury, it has been suggested that the BioPen would be more efficient and successful than current injection methods, as surgeons have more control over exactly where the stem cells are deposited, which ultimately shortens recovery times for patients.

The BioPen is currently being tested in ongoing clinical trials at the St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, in which researchers are working on improving the stem cell ink. The ink, which is enclosed in a gel-like material, is currently a mixture containing mainly stem cells but also environmental materials such as seaweed extract. The ink is to be layered onto the site of damage, and each layer is cured with an ultraviolet light.

Health professionals seem optimistic about this new development and Professor Peter Choong, the Director of Orthopedics at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, and the Sir Hugh Devine, Professor of Surgery at University of Melbourne, explain that this tool has the potential to be useful, saying that “this type of treatment may be suitable for repairing acutely damaged bone and cartilage, for example from sporting or motor vehicle injuries.”

So, is the BioPen going to take over the medical world? I believe so. Maybe not right away, but within the next five years, I expect the BioPen to be on the market, and we will eventually see the top orthopedic surgeons taking full advantage of the precision that the BioPen offers. The major factor that makes me believe the BioPen will thrive its ability to reduce recovery time for patients.

Reducing the time athletes are off the field or workers must spend at home would significantly boost patients’ attitudes towards recovery and allow them to get back to doing what they want to do. The precision of the technology is also expected to make more successful repairs and help prevent re-injury by the patient.

However, one must consider the negatives of the BioPen. Interestingly, though, through the many articles I’ve read about the BioPen, none of them had a single bad thing to say about this new technology. Nonetheless, I suspect that the BioPen and the stem cell ink will be rather expensive, and many insurance plans may not be willing to cover the high costs right away. Also, the BioPen is currently undergoing tests in Australia, not the United States.

Even if the BioPen passes trials in Australia and goes live on the market, I believe that the United States would then run their own clinical trials before allowing the pen in United States health professionals’ hands. It often can take years for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve medical practices that are already widely used elsewhere in the world, such as Europe and Australia. As a result, it will likely take even longer for this innovative product to make its way across the Pacific.

Even with these speed bumps on the road to success, the BioPen is a huge advancement for the orthopedic field. I believe that, even with the negatives, the BioPen will be in top orthopedic doctors offices all over not just Australia, but the United States and beyond. Maybe it won’t happen anytime soon, but this pen seems like an opportunity too good to pass up.

 

—Delaney Fischer ‘15 is a neuroscience major.

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