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Rice-TMC teams win two ‘fracture putty’ grants
Bioengineers, physicians work on bone-healing wonder materials
Two teams of Rice University bioengineers and colleagues at the Texas Medical Center have been asked to create a putty-like wonder material that can be packed around broken bones on the battlefield to reduce complications from compound fractures.
Rice’s bioengineers are partnering with doctors from Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHSC-H).
“The Department of Defense’s call for ‘fracture putty’ research proposals attracted a great deal of attention,” said Jim Coleman, Rice’s vice provost for research. “It is a testament to Rice’s expertise in tissue engineering that our people were tapped to fill critical roles in two of the three programs that won initial funding.”
Compound bone fractures — severe breaks in which the bone protrudes through the skin — are difficult to treat in the best of circumstances. Complications on the battlefield only add to the difficulty. Multiple surgeries are often required. Bone screws, rods, plates and other orthopedic devices are common, and it can take months, even years, for soldiers to heal and rehabilitate.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hopes to address this problem by developing a nontoxic, putty-like material that can be applied on the battlefield to provide immediate support to the broken bone and promote the rapid growth of new bone.
DARPA, the Department of Defense agency funding the project, sponsors revolutionary high-risk, high-payoff research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military and civilian use.
“This undertaking represents the ultimate convergence of materials science, mechanics and orthopedics,” said DARPA Program Manager Mitchell Zakin. “I look forward to the first results, which should present themselves in about a year or so.”
Jennifer West, Rice’s Isabel C. Cameron Professor and chair of the Bioengineering Department, said, “By designing synthetic polymers to mimic natural tissue components, we are striving to design a fracture putty that can encourage the appropriate wound-healing responses, and ultimately degrade in response to bone formation so that only healthy tissue is left behind”.
West is co-principal investigator on a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional team led by Michael Heggeness, chair of orthopedic surgery at BCM, and Elizabeth Davis from BCM’s Center for Cell and Gene Therapy. The team also includes researchers at the University of Georgia and UTHSC-H. It plans to combine cells that induce bone growth with an innovative gel to develop a treatment that will facilitate bone growth and provide structural support at the same time.
A second Houston-based team is led by principal investigator Mauro Ferrari of UTHSC-H and includes two Rice co-principal investigators Antonios Mikos, Louis Calder Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of Rice’s Center for Excellence in Tissue Engineering, and Kurt Kasper, faculty fellow in the Bioengineering Department.
Mikos said, “We are extremely excited to participate in this highly collaborative project, which seeks to develop a novel material to treat, stabilize, and heal highly complicated bone fractures, such as those commonly created through blast injuries to our troops. The technology to be explored through this research presents the potential to revolutionize the treatment of bone fractures both in civilian clinics and on the battlefield.”
This team, which includes investigators from The Methodist Hospital, Texas A&M University, Northwestern University and Harvard University, plans to use synthetic biodegradable scaffolds together with specially engineered silicon particles with nanoscale features to enhance the strength and material properties of its fracture putty.