It can take months for bones to heal after even a small break. Now a U.K. company, RegenTec, hopes to speed up the healing process by injecting a white powder designed to seal broken bones together in minutes.
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"You won't be able to just walk out of a hospital with a broken leg," said Robin Quirk, a professor at the University of Nottingham who, along with Kevin Shakesheff in the United States, originally developed the technology. "What we are trying to do in the short term is have something that fills the void left by a break that acts like normal spongy bone and encourages natural regeneration."
The proprietary mix of ceramic and polylactic acid is called, for now, Injectable Bone.
At room temperature, it is an inert white powder. Once injected into a break site with a needle stick, however, the body's higher temperature causes the two materials to fuse together in a hard, spongy mass much like living bone.
Tailor the healing process
Injectable Bone isn't the only bone glue out there. Others exist, although they have some problems. In some cases they harden in a solid mass or raise body temperature at the injection site enough to damage nearby tissue.
Injectable Bone could actually encourage bone growth, when bone-producing cells and growth-encouraging drugs are mixed in with the powder mixture. The cells fill up the holes with natural bone as the Injectable Bone degrades into lactic acid, a compound produced naturally by the body.
"We can actually control the rate of degradation to tailor it to the individual's healing," said Quirk.
Injectable Bone isn't meant to permanently replace natural bone, just give the body time to repair.
Multiple fractures on the same bone can be difficult to set and heal property. To hold the bone fragments in proper alignment, doctors place surgical pins and rods that can be painful to remove. Injectable Bone could replace the metal surgical pins currently used to help bone heal, its makers say.
It won't, however, allow patients to forego plaster casts. The glue binds bone together but isn't strong enough to bear weight.
Injectable Bone should sell well, said Jennifer Elisseef, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Elisseef has her own company, Cartilix, that focuses on materials to replace broken cartilage.
"There is a lot of interest in bone filler materials from clinicians and from the military," said Elisseef.
RegenTec claims it will have Injectable Bone stateside within 18 months. That's an optimistic number, said Elisseef, adding that FDA approval will likely take longer than that.
In the long run, Injectable Bone could also become Injectable Heart, said Quirk: "Following a heart attack...the appropriate cells could be delivered to help re-grow tissue."
© 2012 Discovery Channel