Humpty Dumpty

What if doctors could repair your broken leg with your own bone marrow stem cells and support it with an implant that dissolves over time, leaving behind only healthy, newly grown bone?

Over the course of a seven-year collaboration, researchers at the University of Southampton and the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. have found a way to do just that.

Researchers tested hundreds of plastic blends before settling on one that is “robust, lightweight, and able to support bone stem cell growth.” They’ve shown success by re-growing bone in the laboratory and during animal tests using the plastic implant, and they hope to begin clinical trials in humans in five to seven years.

Their test results were published last week in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

How Does the Bone Implant Work?

The cleverly designed device is made of a blend of three commercially available plastic polymers, formed into a honeycomb “scaffold” by freeze-drying. Making the implant porous allows blood to flow through it, encouraging the patient’s bone marrow stem cells to attach to it and mature into new bone.

The plastic gradually degrades, leaving healthy bone in its wake, with no risk of rejection from a donor bone graft procedure.

"We are confident that this material could soon be helping to improve the quality of life for patients with severe bone injuries, and will help maintain the health of an ageing population," Professor Mark Bradley of the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry said in a press release.

And the biodegradable plastic scaffold could potentially be used to repair more than hips and femurs.

“The materials offer the opportunity to blend scaffolds for other tissues by tailoring the requisite mechanical properties for hard and soft tissues,” said Richard Oreffo, a Professor of Musculoskeletal Science who led the bone skeletal stem cell evaluation at the University of Southampton.

How Can I Maintain Bone Strength to Prevent Fractures?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there were 281,000 hospital admissions for hip fractures alone in 2007 among Americans ages 65 and older, with Caucasian women at the highest risk.

The CDC report that one in five hip fracture patients die within a year of the injury, and that up to 25 percent of adults who are independent before a hip fracture spend at least one year in a nursing home afterward.

Osteoporosis, a condition that makes bones porous, weak, and prone to fractures, can increase your risk of breaking a hip. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent osteoporosis and bone injuries in general:

  • Get enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet.
  • Get regular exercise. Balance and strength-training activities, such as Thai Chi and weight lifting, provide the greatest benefit.
  • Make sure your home is free of slippery surfaces and tripping hazards to help prevent falls.
  • Get regular bone density screenings for osteoporosis.

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