Czech scientists working on 3D printed joint replacements

Czech scientists are working on the development of small joint replacements using 3D printing. The tiny implants made of titanium powder could help patients suffering from arthritis in the joints of their fingers and toes, where conventional treatment often fails.

Hip and knee replacement surgery are one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures, successfully helping to eliminate pain in patients suffering from arthritis. Now researchers from the Brno University of Technology are working on developing joint replacements that could help patients with arthritis in their hands and toes. Scientists are cooperating with a Czech implant manufacturer, who supplies the printed samples. Their role is to test how the new type of joints will behave in the body. In order to do that, they are using a special simulator to see how big a load the titanium powder implant can withstand. Martin Vrbka from the Institute of Machine and Industrial Design is one of the research team members:

"The manufacturer wants the replacement to be reliable and last in the patient’s body for, say, 10, 15 or 20 years. That means we want to produce friction surfaces that will have the greatest durability and the least wear and tear, that won't basically fail."

The durability of the 3D printed replacements is being tested by scientists on a special simulator, constructed by researcher Pavel Čípek. He explained to Czech Radio how it works:

"The basis of the device is a glass plate. We press the sample on the bottom of the plate and then we move it, creating frictional forces between the sample and the plate, which we then measure. At the same time, we can study the contact of the two surfaces with a microscope."

Initial test results show that thanks to a special porous structure, the 3D printed substitutes can resist friction better than some other materials that are commonly used to make artificial hip or knee joints. But according to Martin Vrbka, 3D printing from titanium powder also has other advantages:

"It is tailor-made for specific patients. We can use data from CT scans or MRIs. And there is a very good biocompatibility of the material, meaning that the body doesn’t fight it."

The replacements being developed by scientists at the Brno University of Technology could mainly help patients who suffer from a high degree of arthritis in the joints of the fingers or feet, he says:

"On the hand, you basically lose the gripping ability to hold objects, brush your teeth, lean on the hand or drink. On the foot, it's the support function of the thumb that's critical in load transfer and walking."

The testing of the 3D printed replacements will take at least another two years, before eventually being produced.


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