Why do bone cells colonize glass scaffolding? Dr. Delbert Day says it’s like seeding a fishing environment by throwing an old Christmas tree into the water. The submerged tree provides good pockets of cover for all kinds of fish. But this isn’t really a discussion about aquatic habitats. Day is trying to explain why human bone cells would want to colonize medical scaffolding made out of glass fibers.
“Nature abhors a void,” he says. “And the body likes certain kinds of glass.”
A Curators’ Professor emeritus of ceramic engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Day has developed a number of new applications for glass, including the treatment of liver cancer with tiny, radioactive glass spheres. Currently, Day and a group of Missouri S&T researchers are developing 3-D scaffolds made out of bioactive glasses. And, yes, they plan to use the scaffolds for bone regeneration.
“Cells can get inside the scaffolding, grow, and develop in the pores,” Day says, “just like the fish colonize the Christmas tree.”
But here’s where the analogy departs. Unlike the tree, which never becomes one with the fish, the scaffolding eventually does become part of the bone.
Right now, titanium rods are often used to repair badly damaged bones. But Day and his colleagues say the glass scaffolding is, mechanically, much closer to the composition of real bone. Compared to metal implants, which are smooth and rigid, the scaffolding is porous and downright hospitable.
“Over time, the scaffolding would become indistinguishable from bone,” says Dr. Roger Brown, a professor of biological sciences who is working on the project. “It becomes part of the bone structure.”
The Missouri S&T researchers have formed a partnership – officially called the Consortium for Bone and Tissue Repair and Regeneration – with researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “We do the materials work here,” explains Dr. Len Rahaman, a professor of materials science and engineering at Missouri S&T who is working with Day and Brown. “They do the clinical work at UMKC.”
Four bioactive glasses selected by the Missouri S&T researchers are being evaluated in Kansas City. Once the best glasses are identified, Rahaman will lead the effort to build new scaffolds in Rolla. Prototypes will then be placed in animals, and, if everything goes according to plan, the method will ultimately be tested in humans.
In addition to mending arm and leg bones, the glass scaffolding could be used to repair damaged joints and make some dental surgeries more efficient.
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