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A Better Bone Bridge
By James Keough
Whenever a broken bone heals, someone’s bound to tell you that it’s stronger than before. But that’s not the case when an accident or surgery creates a gap that requires a bone graft. Then the new bone forms mostly on the surface of the implant, leaving the center hollow and weak. Until now, that is. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have found a way to fill a gap with solid new bone by making a temporary bridge out of an unlikely mix of things: cement, a biodegradable mesh, a patient’s own bone cells, and extracts from seaweed and crustacean shells.
How does it work? The mesh provides a rebar-like structure that reinforces the cement, which is made from calcium phosphate (a mineral found in bone), and the shells yield chitosan, a biopolymer that makes the cement stronger. The bone cells get mixed right into the cement. Normally that would kill them, but the researchers first coat the cells with a natural polymer found in seaweed. Once in place, this mixture hardens enough to close the gap. Then the seaweed polymer dissolves, and the bone cells start to grow in the space left behind. And because the new bone growth occurs throughout the bridge, it is stronger than traditional grafts.
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