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A peer-reviewed journal that offers evidence-based clinical information and continuing education for dentists.

Applications for Bioprinting Technology

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When dental three-dimensional (3D) printing is mentioned, most dentists think of crowns, habit devices, surgical guides and such — and, in fact, this technology has led to remarkable changes in oral healthcare delivery. However, there is another side to 3D printing that is undergoing an extraordinary evolution. This involves using 3D printers to create new approaches to treating disease and deformity. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), this includes creating tissues and organoids, surgical tools, patient-specific surgical models, and custom-made prosthetics.1 The NCBI report forecasts that 3D printing in the medical field will be worth $3.5B by 2025, compared to $713.3M in 2016. 

A recent paper by Aimar and colleagues2 notes that advances in bioprinting technology will allow production of targeted drugs and medical devices. They point out that 3D anatomical models let clinicians individualize patient treatment; for example, these accurate representations of patient anatomy are being used to plan surgical interventions before performing the procedure. 

The NCBI also reports on bioprinting tissues and organoids. With this approach, living cells replace the plastics and resins typically used in additive fabrication technologies. A computer-guided pipette is employed to layer viable cells (called bio-ink) to create a living tissue construct in the laboratory. These tissue constructs or organoids can be used for medical research, as they mimic organs on a miniature scale. They are also being studied as alternatives to human organ transplants.

The New York Times recently reported on the use of bioprinting to build a 3D replacement for a missing segment of a patient’s ear. The 20-year-old woman received a 3D prosthesis printed using cells harvested from her normal ear. The prosthesis was printed to duplicate, in reverse, the size and shape of her unaffected ear. It was transplanted in March 2022 and “will continue to regenerate cartilage tissue, giving it the look and feel of a natural ear.”

Can this same process be used to print a tooth? According to an article in Tufts News, there are many challenges that must be overcome before achieving this goal. Pamela C. Yelick, PhD, a professor of orthodontics and director of the Division of Craniofacial and Molecular Genetics at Tufts School of Dental Medicine and colleagues have been working on this process. The problem is that multiple layers of different materials and signaling molecules are necessary to form the complex entity that makes up a tooth. Researchers are using stem cells from healthy adult dental pulp as their starting point. 

Among the challenges is that these cells must receive the right mixture of nutrients and growth hormones at precisely the right times. The cells are placed on a scaffold that mimics the 3D structure of tooth buds as they form in an embryonic state. So far, these efforts have not resulted in a transplantable tooth. Given the rapid advances in this field, however, a breakthrough seems possible within the foreseeable future. And that is certainly a development worth watching.

Thomas G. Wilson Jr., DDS
Editor in Chief
[email protected]

REFERENCES

  1. Sun Z. 3D printing in medicine: current applications and future directions. Quant Imaging Med Surg. 2018;8:1069–1077.
  2. Aimar A, Palermo A, Innocenti B. The role of 3D printing in medical applications: a state of the art. J Healthc Eng. 2019;2019:5340616.

From Decisions in Dentistry. July 2022;8(7)5.

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