3D printing PCL/nHA bone scaffolds: exploring the influence of material synthesis techniques

Background
It is known that a number of parameters can influence the post-printing properties of bone tissue scaffolds. Previous research has primarily focused on the effect of parameters associated with scaffold design (e.g., scaffold porosity) and specific scaffold printing processes (e.g., printing pressure). To our knowledge, no studies have investigated variations in post-printing properties attributed to the techniques used to synthesize the materials for printing (e.g., melt-blending, powder blending, liquid solvent, and solid solvent).

Methods
Four material preparation techniques were investigated to determine their influence on scaffold properties. Polycaprolactone/nano-hydroxyapatite 30% (wt.) materials were synthesized through melt-blending, powder blending, liquid solvent, and solid solvent techniques. The material printability and the properties of printed scaffolds, in terms of swelling/degradation, mechanical strength, morphology, and thermal properties, were examined and compared to one another using Kruskal-Wallis nonparametric statistical analysis.

Results
Material prepared through the liquid solvent technique was found to have limited printability, while melt-blended material demonstrated the highest degree of uniformity and lowest extent of swelling and degradation. Scaffolds prepared with powder-blended material demonstrated the highest Young’s modulus, yield strength, and modulus of resilience; however, they also demonstrated the highest degree of variability. The higher degree of inhomogeneity in the material was further supported by thermal gravimetric analysis. While scaffolds printed from melt-blended, powder-blended, and solid solvent materials demonstrated a high degree of micro-porosity, the liquid solvent material preparation technique resulted in minimal micro-porosity.

Conclusions
Study results indicate that specific techniques used to prepare materials influence the printing process and post-printing scaffold properties. Among the four techniques examined, melt-blended materials were found to be the most favorable, specifically when considering the combination of printability, consistent mechanical properties, and efficient preparation. Techniques determined to be favourable based on the properties investigated should undergo further studies related to biological properties and time-dependent properties beyond 21-days.