New bone tissue grown from patients’ own stem cells that attach themselves to an implanted, rigid lightweight plastic “scaffolding” which gradually degrades and is replaced as new bone grows, could soon be healing shattered limbs, according to a new research report.

The degradable polymer material is the result of a seven-year collaboration between the Universities of Southampton and Edinburgh. The researchers report their work in a paper published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

In their background information they note how bone tissue regeneration is often needed after trauma, where “substantial bone or cartilage loss may be encountered”, and this drives researchers to develop new biomaterials, especially those that can form a 3D structure.

Their new material is “strong enough to replace bone and is also a suitable surface upon which to grow new bone,” says study author Mark Bradley, a professor in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry, in a statement.

Using what the statement describes as a “pioneering technique”, Bradley and colleagues created and experimented with hundreds of candidates before settling on a material that was robust, lightweight, and able to support bone stem cells.

The new technique, called “solvent blending”, is a process that “avoids complications associated with conventional thermal or mechanical polymer blending or synthesis, opening up large areas of chemical and physical space, while potentially simplifying regulatory pathways towards in vivo application,” they write.

The material they finally settled on is a polymer blend of three types of manmade and natural plastics and can be inserted into broken bones to encourage real bone to re-grow.

The polymer blend is like a scaffold made of honeycomb that allows blood to flow through it. Stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow that are in the blood attach themselves to the scaffold and grow new bone tissue.

As time goes on, the material degrades, allowing the re-grown bone to replace it.

The researchers have already tested it in the lab and in animals, and are now looking to move into human clinical testing.

Bradley says:

“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.”

His colleague and co-author Richard Oreffo, Professor of Musculoskeletal Science at the University of Southampton, says:

“Fractures and bone loss due to trauma or disease are a significant clinical and socioeconomic problem. This collaboration between chemistry and medicine has identified unique candidate materials that support human bone stem cell growth and allow bone formation. Our collaborative strategy offers significant therapeutic implications.”

In June 2012, US scientists reported finding a way to grow new bone using fresh, purified stem cells from fat tissue that produces better quality bone faster than conventional methods.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD