Healing wounds and regrowing bones: Duke professors develop futuristic biomaterial implants
Imagine a scaffold-like metal implant that could support the regrowth of a broken bone. All that would be needed would be an initial CT scan, virtual implant construction, and a metal printer to produce the final product. Devastating consequences like amputation or loss of the ability to walk could be avoided.
While this type of innovation may seem outside the realm of modern technology, several Duke professors have made these futuristic biomaterial implants a reality, including Ken Gall, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; Shyni Varghese, professor of orthopedic surgery and Matthew Becker, Hugo L. Blomquist distinguished professor of chemistry.
Gall’s research focuses on the use of 3D-printed metals and polymers, including the aforementioned metal scaffolding, using synthetic hydrogels for cartilage replacement and other related exploration. He has also started a new project studying the types of structures that can be printed and seeks to use machine learning or other algorithms to predict how these structures will behave.
Although Gall’s research covers a wide range of biomaterials, the common link between these implants is their ability to perform a structural function, he said.
“We are trying to figure out how [to] making these materials fit into the body so that they survive it, ”said Gall. “Our approach has always been [to] put something better than what you started with.
Varghese’s research focuses more specifically on the use of the adenosine biomolecule to promote bone formation and prevent bone degeneration. She has developed three implants that could use adenosine to promote fracture healing, the first of which takes advantage of the nanomolar amounts of adenosine already present in the body.
While normal adenosine levels are usually too low to promote healing, cells under stress during injury secrete more of the molecule. Therefore, Varghese proposed a biomaterial implant that can sequester this adenosine released during cellular stress and ensure that it stays in the body longer to promote healing.
Adenosine levels decrease with illness. To remedy insufficient levels of the biomolecule in patients, Varghese created an implant that delivers additional adenosine to the body.
Apart from adenosine, Varghese’s lab has studied self-healing lubricants for joint injuries and potentially even dry eyes. She is also working on a nanocarrier drug implant that can be given orally to treat bone loss caused by osteoporosis.
Becker’s research aims to “bring new materials, fundamental building blocks, into the realm of the possible,” he said. He hopes to use these new biomaterials to address unmet medical needs and material challenges in various medical disciplines.
One of the implants developed by Becker consists of a degradable polymer film composed of polyester-ureas based on amino acids loaded with analgesics. The film can be implanted after laparoscopic surgery or cesarean section and can control pain locally for four to five days. This would mean that opioid pain relievers would no longer be needed for patients after surgery.
“I hope that before I am done with that… one of the polymers developed in my lab reaches a patient. And it looks like we’re getting closer, ”Becker said.
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One of Becker’s favorite memories in the lab involved working with the Department of Defense to develop degradable plastic polymers for soldiers injured by improvised explosive devices or gunshot wounds. The polymers would fill two to three inches of bone lost during the injury and save the limb, thus avoiding the need for amputation. Becker’s lab tested the effectiveness of the polymer in a sheep model. After four hours after the surgery, the sheep was able to stand up and walk.
“It was probably my most memorable ‘wow’ moment just because we had no idea if it would work,” Becker said.
Varghese’s favorite memory in his lab was working on soft robotics with one of his graduate students. Varghese asked the graduate student to see if he could use the self-healing lab gel to produce a flexible robot, and a few months later the student was able to make Varghese’s vision a reality.
“Giving students vague, imaginary, dreamy ideas and then working with them and figuring out those things has always been fun,” Varghese said.
Gall’s favorite part of his job is watching biomaterials discovered in his lab end up taking hold in a person.
“It’s exciting to be able to say that we published the first article that showed this. And then the first patients who ever had that in their bodies, we helped that happen, ”said Gall.
Ayra Charania is a sophomore at Trinity and associate editor of The Chronicle’s 117th volume.