Pioneering technologies like 3D printing have had a huge impact on the medical world, and now a unique material developed by researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Milano-Bicocca could lead to all-new implants for replacing damaged cartilage, including discs between vertebrae. The new material mimics the properties of the real thing, while encouraging the re-growth of natural cartilage.

Cartilage, which is found in joints, as well as between vertebrae in the spine, is not as easy to repair as other types of connective tissue, and its degeneration can leave patients in a lot of pain. A new bio-material, made up of a mixture of a polymer called polycaprolactone and silica, could help with the ability to replace lost cartilage.

It's similar to real cartilage in that it's strong, flexible and durable, giving it the same load-bearing and shock-absorbing properties. Furthermore, it's possible to produce the material in a biodegradable ink form, allowing researchers to 3D print structures. The material also has self-healing properties, allowing two sections to firmly reattach after being pulled apart.

The researchers believe that the material could be useful in numerous situations. For example, it could be used to create implants for patients with damaged intervertebral discs, or to 3D print tiny biodegradable scaffolds that replicate lost cartilage in the knee.

The latter would encourage actual cartilage cells to grow through the structure before it degrades, essentially replacing lost cartilage. Test tube trials have already shown that it's effective in this regard, encouraging the adherence of cartilage cells.

While the material could provide some much-needed relief for people suffering from cartilage loss, it'll likely be quite a while before it's approved for clinical use, with the team estimating that it will take some 10 years for the tech to reach patients.

"We still have a long way to go before this technology reaches patients, but we've made some important steps in the right direction to move this technology towards the marketplace, which may ultimately provide relief to people around the world," said Imperial College's Professor Julian Jones.

For a look at the bio-glass's self-repairing abilities in action, you can view the video below.

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