If you’ve ever experienced a bone fracture, you know how painful and inconvenient it can be. The process of healing can be slow and varies based on the severity of the fracture. Sometimes, all that is needed is a cast or brace; however, more severe fractures can require surgery and the implantation of metal devices such as plates, screws, and rods to stabilize the bone while it mends. According to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, traditional bone implants are composed of metals such as stainless steel, titanium, or PEEK, a polymer material that is non degradable, and remain in the body unless surgically removed. These metal implants are strong and resilient, but can result in further complications such as infection. As a result, medical researchers are looking for materials that can be more easily absorbed by the body. One such example is Evonik, a German specialty chemicals company. Their team of researchers is currently exploring biodegradable 3D printing materials that could be used to help heal fractured bones.
The benefits of biodegradable implants are quite significant. The patient’s body can absorb the material as the bone heals instead of needing another surgery to remove the metal implant. In addition, specific designs could potentially be used to help bones regenerate faster. The materials Evonik is developing break down in carbon dioxide and water through the course of a few weeks to several months, depending on the material’s molecular composition, chain length, and crystallinity. This time allows the bone to be supported while it heals, after which it no longer needs the implant.
The products Evonik has created are not yet strong enough for large, load-bearing bones. As a result, the company is exploring composite materials which reinforce biodegradable polymers with inorganic substances, such as calcium phosphate derivatives. These extra elements would make the materials both stronger and more biocompatible. Ultimately, researchers at Evonik aim to create a product that is not only biocompatible but also suitable for 3D printing. They recently announced a 3D printing materials partnership with HP and are looking into composite materials from which 3D printed implants can be created. With the 3D printing technology, implants could be customized for the patient’s specific.
Evonik is not alone in its search for more suitable bone implants. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are also working to create 3D printed materials that are biodegradable and match the patient’s body. Their goal is to use minerals the body can absorb and discharge as the body heals. Dr. Prashat Kumta, who is conducting the research, explained, “Rather than implanting a screw or plate or joint, doctors could give the body’s own regenerative ability a more effective method to heal itself.” Just like Evonik, these researchers recognize the need for implants that are received more readily by the human body and that partner with its natural healing ability.
The research for biodegradable 3D printing materials is still in the early stages. While the products are not yet suitable for bone fracture implants, researchers are making significant advances in this area.
At Polymer Solutions Incorporated, we’re always excited to see advances in medical research. Our scientists perform medical device testing on a regular basis and understand the importance of constantly finding better ways to meet patients’ needs. We know we’re not the only ones passionate about this – Evonik and the researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are also on the hunt to make our world a better place through advancing medical care.