Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology have developed a type of glass implant that could one day be used to repair injured bones in the arms, legs and other areas of the body that are most subject to the stresses of weight.
This marks the first time researchers have shown a glass implant strong enough to bear weight can also integrate with bone and promote bone growth, says lead researcher Dr. Mohamed N. Rahaman, professor of materials science and engineering  at Missouri S&T.
In previous work, the Missouri S&T researchers developed a glass implant strong enough to handle the weight and pressure of repetitive movement, such as walking or lifting. In their most recent study , published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia, the research team reported that the glass implant, in the form of a porous scaffolding, also integrates with bone and promotes bone growth.
This combination of strength and bone growth opens new possibilities for bone repair, says Rahaman, who also directs Missouri S&T’s Center for Biomedical Science and Engineering , where the research was conducted.
“Right now, there is no synthetic material that is practical for structural bone repair,” Rahaman says.
Conventional approaches to structural bone repair involve either the use of a porous metal, which does not reliably heal bone, or a bone allograft from a cadaver. Both approaches are costly and carry risks, Rahaman says. He thinks the type of glass implant developed in his center could provide a more feasible approach for repairing injured bones. The glass is bioactive, which means that it reacts when implanted in living tissue and convert to a bone-like material.
In their latest research, Rahaman and his colleagues implanted bioactive glass scaffolds into sections of the calvarial bones (skullcaps) of laboratory rats, then examined how well the glass integrated with the surrounding bone and how quickly new bone grew into the scaffold. The scaffolds are manufactured in Rahaman’s lab through a process known as robocasting – a computer-controlled technique to manufacture materials from ceramic slurries, layer by layer – to ensure uniform structure for the porous material.
In previous studies by the Missouri S&T researchers, porous scaffolds of the silicate glass, known as 13-93, were found to have the same strength properties as cortical bone. Cortical bones are those outer bones of the body that bear the most weight and undergo the most repetitive stress. They include the long bones of the arms and legs.
But what Rahaman and his colleagues didn’t know was how well the silicate 13-93 bioactive glass scaffolds would integrate with bone or how quickly bone would grow into the scaffolding.
“You can have the strongest material in the world, but it also must encourage bone growth in a reasonable amount of time,” says Rahaman. He considers three to six months to be a reasonable time frame for completely regenerating an injured bone into one strong enough to bear weight.
In their studies, the S&T researchers found that the bioactive glass scaffolds bonded quickly to bone and promoted a significant amount of new bone growth within six weeks.
While the skullcap is not a load-bearing bone, it is primarily a cortical bone. The purpose of this research was to demonstrate how well this type of glass scaffolding – already shown to be strong – would interact with cortical bone.
Rahaman and his fellow researchers in the Center for Biomedical Science and Engineering are now experimenting with true load-bearing bones. They are now testing the silicate 13-93 implants in the femurs (leg bones) of laboratory rats.
In the future, Rahaman plans to experiment with modified glass scaffolds to see how well they enhance certain attributes within bone. For instance, doping the glass with copper should promote the growth of blood vessels or capillaries within the new bone, while doping the glass with silver will give it antibacterial properties.
Working with Rahaman are Xin Liu, a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering at Missouri S&T; Dr. Yongxing Liu, an assistant research professor of materials science and engineering; Dr. B. Sonny Bal, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia; and Dr. Lynda Bonewald, Curators’ Professor director of the bone biology research program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry.
The research team’s Acta Biomaterialia article, “Enhanced bone regeneration in rat calvarial defects implanted with surface-modified and BMP-loaded bioactive glass (13-93) scaffolds,” was published in the July issue (Volume 9, Issue 7) and is available online .
Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology have developed a type of glass implant that could one day be used to repair injured bones in the arms, legs and other areas of the body that are most subject to the stresses of weight. This marks the first time researchers have shown a glass implant strong enough to bear weight can also integrate with bone and promote bone growth.