It looks like bone. It feels like bone. For the most part, it acts like bone—and it came off an inkjet printer.

Washington State University researchers have used a 3D printer to create a bone-like material and structure that can be used in orthopedic procedures, dental work and to deliver medicine for treating osteoporosis, according to a university press release. Paired with actual bone, it acts as a scaffold for new bone to grow on and ultimately dissolves with no apparent ill effects.

The authors report on successful in vitro tests in the journal Dental Materials. It’s possible that doctors will be able to custom order replacement bone tissue in a few years, says Susmita Bose, co-author and a professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

“If a doctor has a CT scan of a defect, we can convert it to a CAD file and make the scaffold according to the defect,” Bose says.

The printer works by having an inkjet spray a plastic binder over a bed of powder in layers of 20 microns, about half the width of a human hair, according to the press release. Following a computer’s directions, it creates a channeled cylinder the size of a pencil eraser.

After just a week in a medium with immature human bone cells, the scaffold was supporting a network of new bone cells.

Video of Bose discussing her work can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvkfMu76drE.

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