An X-ray image of the shoulder bone structure.

A new multi-functional material to boost bone healing

  • Research

When someone has a bone injury – perhaps a fracture, or a disease that means part of the bone needs to be removed – that site of damage in the body can become infected, slowing down healing and putting the patient at risk. 

As many as one in every 5,000 people in the US develop a bone infection each year. To compound the problem, the antibiotics that doctors usually use in these situations work slowly, and as many as half of bone infections are caused by bacteria that are resistant to many treatments.  

In a bid to help patients through their journey of recovery, researchers at RCSI have developed a new material that brings together a number of solutions to encourage healing.

The material is designed to be placed onto damaged bone, where it speeds up healing while at the same time reducing the risk of the injured bone becoming infected. Then, during the course of healing, as the material is derived from natural products, the body can naturally break it down when it is no longer needed. 

Researchers at the RCSI Tissue Engineering Research Group (TERG) created the material from components derived from our bones and the 3D scaffold-like structure of this material means that when it is put onto injured or diseased bone, it encourages the bone to regrow.  

As an extra boost, the researchers put a specific genetic molecule into the scaffold to encourage new bone to form. They also added tiny nanoparticles of copper. These are known to kill the types of microbes that cause most bone infections.  

Bone regrowth

In their lab study, published in the journal Advanced Materials, the researchers showed that the material could stimulate bone regrowth in two weeks, and that it stopped 80% of potentially harmful bacteria from attaching to the site.  

Their lab study also showed that the implants stimulated a good blood supply to the area of healing, which is crucial for the health and viability of the newly formed bone.  

The potential of the multi-functional implant for use in humans might be explored in the future. Based on how the material performed in lab studies, the researchers believe it will speed up recovery time for patients, and by delivering the copper locally at the site of injury, it will help to reduce the problem of microbes becoming resistant to the treatment.  

The first author of the study was Dr Joanna Sadowska, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at RCSI TERG who worked with principal investigator Professor Fergal O’Brien, Professor of Bioengineering and Regenerative Medicine at RCSI, Head of TERG and Deputy Director of AMBER, the SFI Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research.  

The RCSI researchers collaborated with colleagues from Trinity College Dublin and from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. The study was supported by funding through EU Horizon 2020, (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the European Research Council), SFI through the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership, and the ON Foundation, Switzerland.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.