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4th May 2018, Mansfield, CT

Spider silk key to new bone-fixing composite

The University of Connecticut (UConn) researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibres that they believe can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.

“Repairing major load-bearing bones, such as those in the leg, can be a long and uncomfortable process,” the team explains. “To facilitate repair, doctors may install a metal plate to support the bone as it fuses and heals. Yet that can be problematic. Some metals leach ions into surrounding tissue, causing inflammation and irritation. Metals are also very stiff. If a metal plate bears too much load in the leg, the new bone may grow back weaker and be vulnerable to fracture.”

Professor Mei Wei, right, with associate professor Dianyun Zhang (back right), PhD candidate in materials science Bryant Heimbach, and undergraduate Beril Tonyali at their lab in the Materials Science Institute. © Sean Flynn/UConn

Seeking a solution to the problem, UConn professor Mei Wei, a materials scientist and biomedical engineer, turned to spiders and moths for inspiration. In particular, Wei focused on silk fibroin, a protein found in the silk fibres spun by spiders and moths known for its toughness and tensile strength. The medical community has been aware of silk fibroin for a while. It is a common component in medical sutures and tissue engineering because of its strength and biodegradability.

Working with UConn associate professor Dianyun Zhang, a mechanical engineer, Wei’s lab began testing silk fibroin in various composite forms, looking for the right combination and proportion of different materials to achieve optimum strength and flexibility. The new composite needed to be strong and stiff, yet not so much so that it would inhibit dense bone growth. At the same time, the composite needed to be flexible, allowing patients to retain their natural range of motion and mobility while the bone healed.

The new composite consists of long silk fibres and fibres of polylactic acid – a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from cornstarch and sugar cane – that are dipped in a solution in which each is coated with fine bioceramic particles made of hydroxyapatite (the calcium phosphate mineral found in teeth and bones). The coated fibres are then packed in layers on a small steel frame and pressed into a dense composite bar in a hot compression mould.

In a study recently published in the Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials, Wei reports that the high-performance biodegradable composite showed strength and flexibility characteristics that are among the highest ever recorded for similar bioresorbable materials in literature. “Our results are really high in terms of strength and flexibility, but we feel that if we can get every component to do what we want them to do, we can get even higher,” she said.

The new composite is also resilient. Large leg bones in adults and seniors can take many months to heal. The composite developed in Wei’s lab does its job and then starts to degrade after a year. No surgery is required for removal, according to the scientist.

Joining Wei and Zhang in the research were Bryant Heimbach, a PhD candidate and materials scientist in Wei’s lab; and Beril Tonyali, a UConn undergraduate pursuing a degree in materials science and engineering. The team has already begun testing new derivatives of the composite, including those that incorporate a single crystalline form of the hydroxyapatite for greater strength and a variation of the coating mixture to maximize its mechanical properties for bones bearing more weight.

www.uconn.edu

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