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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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VA Researchers To Create New Way For Bones To Heal

January 15, 2009

HOUSTON – If you have not broken a bone, you probably know someone who has. Researchers at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) challenged themselves to create and develop “fracture putty,” a new material that speeds the healing of bone in severe fractures.

With a two-year, nearly $4.5 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a consortium of researchers led by the MEDVAMC and its major affiliate Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) is tackling this project.

Current treatments for severely broken bones require bone screws, plates, and rods that help healing but often require very long healing times, and can lead to further complications.  Through this new fracture putty, researchers hope to develop a nontoxic putty-like material that, when placed at the site of a severe fracture, provides immediate support, and also promotes the rapid formation of new bone.  The material should also degrade over time as normal bone regenerates.

The multidisciplinary and multi-institutional team, led by principal investigator Michael Heggeness, M.D., a staff physician in the Operative Care Line at MEDVAMC and chair of orthopedic surgery at BCM, is one of three groups selected to take on this challenge.

“Our hope is to create a process that would put a stop to the many amputations that too often follow these injuries.  We are developing a new treatment that would be implemented quickly and efficiently after such an injury,” said Heggeness.  “Our exceptional group includes world renowned experts in the fields of molecular biology, biomechanical engineering, tissue engineering, imaging, and orthopedic surgery to offer a diverse and thorough team approach to the problem.”

Traumatic battlefield wounds such as compound bone fracture are very difficult to treat, often requiring multiple surgeries and long healing and rehabilitation times.  Amputations are not uncommon.  Current treatments employing bone screws, plates and rods are deficient and can themselves lead to further complications. Fracture putty represents the ultimate convergence of materials science, mechanics, and orthopedics to help our soldiers recover faster with fewer complications.

Researchers plan to use bone morphogenic protein producing cells, combined with an innovative gel, to develop a treatment that will facilitate bone growth and provide structural support at the same time.  The biocompatible and resorbable gel would then degrade over time, as bone healing occurs.

“By designing synthetic plastic materials 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,” said co-principal investigator Jennifer West, Ph.D., professor and chair of bioengineering at Rice University.

Other investigators who will take part in this study include Francis Gannon, M.D., MEDVAMC staff physician; Alan Davis, Ph.D., Elizabeth Olmstead-Davis, Ph.D., and John Hipp, Ph.D., all of BCM; Eva Sevick, Ph.D. of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; and Steven Stice, Ph.D. and John Peroni, Ph.D. of the University of Georgia.

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