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A blueprint for revolutionising bone regeneration

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PhD research at Queensland University of Technology is making headway in the field of biofabrication using 3D printing to create human bones.

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Naomi Paxton, a PhD student from QUT, is the recipient of the Campus Travel and Virgin Australia Travel Grant 2017: Recognising women in STEM. Naomi was one of over 1000 women to apply for this year’s travel grant. Please view the video above to hear about Naomi’s research.

Imagine a world where a trauma to the skull can be healed with a 3D printed scaffold, which encourages the body’s own cells to grow and ultimately heal the injury. Making this a reality is the goal that is driving the ground breaking work of Campus Travel STEM Travel Grant recipient Naomi Paxton.

A TEDx presentation and a chance meeting were the catalysts that led Naomi Paxton to pursue a PhD in biofabrication at QUT. With a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physics) under her belt, Naomi was giving a TEDx talk on astrophysics when she was captivated by a presentation from Professor Mia Woodruff. Naomi’s interest in the way Professor Woodruff was creating 3D scaffolds for bone regeneration, resulted in an invitation to learn more about her work.

Naomi was immediately enthralled with the field of biofabrication and she jumped at the opportunity to use her physics background to join the highly multidisciplinary Biofabrication and Tissue Morphology (BTM) group, led by Professor Woodruff. In order to pursue this area of study, Naomi completed her Master of Applied Science (Research) in Biofabrication, before embarking on her PhD.

Utilising the cutting-edge facilities at QUT, Naomi is focussed on printing 3D parts that one day will be implanted in a patient’s body to act as a scaffold. These patient specific structures will combine advanced biomaterials and the patient’s own cells, which then regrow and completely heal the defect. The three most common reasons people suffer bone loss are as a result of a trauma or accident, tissue loss (from conditions such as bone cancer) and birth defects.

For Naomi, the unlimited potential of using 3D bioprinting to improve the lives of people suffering bone loss is what drives her. The challenge now is to find the best possible material for the scaffolds, with Naomi’s research focusing on a very promising composite polymer/bioglass material that can be safely and effectively used in humans.

With the BTM group, Naomi is working to construct complex shapes out of biocompatible polymer fibres that are much thinner than a human hair. Once implanted, these FDA approved scaffolds completely dissolve over time as the patient’s own tissue grows through to restore the site.

This technique has a number of unique benefits that make it safer for the patient, while providing a long-term solution. Current grafting methods take bone from a donor or another site on the patient’s body and then implant it at the trauma site. In addition to there being a shortage of donor material, this procedure creates two surgical sites and carries a high risk of infection.

However, by creating a product that bypasses these issues, the printed scaffolds are a more affordable, long-term solution that will ultimately be accessible to people everywhere – including those in third world countries. With the fast pace at which the research is progressing, Naomi and the BTM group hope to have this product in the market within the next few years.

Taking a world first approach to combining glass and polymer materials, does however throw up a series of challenges. One of the main issues has been creating 3D printers that can handle the materials that Naomi is printing with. This is a weekly challenge that keeps the engineers in the QUT team busy, as they constantly build and modify printers to cope with the new materials being tested.

But for Naomi this is just one example of how the benefits of working in a multidisciplinary team come to the fore. “I love the collaboration that goes on between so many different STEM areas,” says Naomi. “I’m able to harness my science, maths and physics knowledge, but I also get to learn about chemistry, biology and engineering. So I’m always learning something new and improving my skills.”

Naomi is set to deepen her collaboration with another leader in the field, Professor Molly Stevens at Imperial College London, when she takes advantage of the Campus Travel STEM Travel Grant next year. She plans to work alongside Professor Stevens in the United Kingdom to advance her work on novel bioactive scaffolds and to then share her findings with the team at QUT. Next year, Naomi and the BTM group will be relocating to the Herston Biofabrication Institute, a partnership between Metro North Hospital and Health Service and QUT.

Naomi is completing her PhD as part of QUT’s ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre in Additive Biomanufacturing. Her research is being championed through collaborations with medical device company, Anatomic and Professor Molly Stevens at Imperial College London.

 

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