Professor Hutmacher is the director of the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre in Additive Biomanufacturing at Queensland University of Technology, where he and his team have developed scaffolds that can be implanted into a patient to allow their own tissue to regrow and heal wounds.
They started with bone scaffolds, using 3D printing to create customised implants to regrow sections of damaged bone that would previously have had to be treated with amputation.
In 2017 they partnered with Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital and its pioneering surgeon Michael Wagels to replace a large section of a man’s leg bone, which prevented him from losing his leg.
Professor Hutmacher and his team have since partnered with the PA Hospital and Dr Wagels to install implants which allowed a man to regrow large sections of his own skull after a traffic crash, as well as install a chest implant to correct a birth deformity for a Brisbane medical student.
Professor Hutmacher said the collaborative nature of those projects was the way forward for the sector, after having encountered roadblocks in his research early in his career.
“I’ve tried to get funding for this work and always the comments from the grant assessors was ‘this is not a fundamental problem’,” he said.
“But when you treat a patient, it’s not about a fundamental hypothesis, it’s about doing something good.
“And it’s not just the scaffold technologies, you need to have surgeons and a clinical team who go with you through the process, to get the best outcome for patients.”
An estimated 2.2 million bone grafting operations are done worldwide each year, about 10 per cent of those, or about 220,000, for long bones in the arm or leg.
Using a scaffold to encourage the patient’s own bone to grow and repair itself is being touted as a much better alternative to grafting, where bone is taken from another part of the patient’s body, raising the potential for complications.
A key feature of the scaffold implants Professor Hutmacher and his team create is they are designed to dissolve once the patient’s own tissue has grown into place, meaning eventually they don’t have an implant any more, just their own cells, regrown.
Although they are not yet at the point the professor’s colleagues talked about 20 years ago, he says the next generation of scientists might get things done more quickly.
“Part of my work at the Australian Research Training centre is just that – training people who can do the job,” he said.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve produced 30 or 40 PhD students, who are out there now working in this field.
“I think in another 10 years when we look back we’ll see the application of 3D-printing in medicine will have exploded.”
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.