Nearly 3 million people in Greater Pittsburgh suffer chronic debilitating pain from osteoarthritis, according to the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis is caused when cartilage around joints begins to disintegrate and doctors have been using artificial joint-replacement or joint removal to repair.

Now researchers at the University of Pittsburgh may have come up with a better solution. They have developed a new technique that can replace cartilage with 3D bioprinted replacements by regenerating healthy cartilage using the patient’s own stem cells.

Bioprinted cartilage requires three main elements according to Dr. Rocky Tuan, director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering: stem cells from the patient, biological factors to activate the cells to grow into the patient’s tissue and a scaffold of biocompatible or biological materials to give the tissue its required shape.

Tuan’s research focuses on the development, growth, function and health of the musculoskeletal system and the biology of adult stem cells in order to develop technologies that will regenerate and/or restore function to diseased and damaged tissues.

The potential market for a regenerative cure from Tuan’s research is huge. Osteoarthritis “leads to 632,000 joint replacements per year. One in two people will develop a form of of this kind of arthritis in their lifetime,” says the Arthritis Foundation.

Creating artificial human tissues like cartilage and blood veins has become a new potential start-up industry in Greater Pittsburgh, though admittedly it will take some time before the products are readily available in the market.

Pitt research is also proving extremely useful in other cartilage-related studies. Tuan’s team has replicated human tissue creating a “tissue-on-a-chip” of the bone-cartilage interface. Pitt researchers will now use this “biochip” to further investigate how osteoarthritis actually develops in the body, and create a potential testbed for testing new arthritis drugs.

According to Tuan, the state of 3D bioprinted cartilage is still in an early, pre-clinical phase. “More studies are needed using large animal models, followed by clinical trials,” he said. “It will take another five years before controlled clinical trials in humans.”