Monday, January 24, 2011

Professor Thomas Webster Named Scientist of the Week by Laboratory Equipment

Thomas WebsterEvery Thursday, Laboratory Equipment features a Scientist of the Week, chosen from the science industry’s latest headlines. This week’s scientist is Thomas Webster from Brown Univ. Webster and his team developed “liquid bone,” or a new kind of liquid that can be injected directly into broken bones and solidifies in seconds. Over time, new bone tissue will take its place, encouraged by natural growth factors embedded in the synthetic molecules of the material.
Q: Why did you decide to research and develop “liquid bone”? 
A: We received a lot of advice from medical doctors to explore materials other than titanium (or metals) for orthopedic applications. Basically, the clinical community was telling us to come up with something novel and more natural than what is being implanted today. The materials developed here, we call twin base linkers (or TBLs) originally come from DNA base pairs which are modified before use. Thus, we developed a material that comes from DNA. How natural is that!

We also got a lot of input from clinicians to develop materials which are injectable and thus would limit the amount of surgery required. Since the patient needs to heal from both the surgery and the new implant, the idea here was to limit the healing needed from the surgery by potentially using just a syringe to inject the material into the tissue defect. That way, healing time is minimized, and hopefully the healing process is accelerated to have quicker, healthier bone.

Q: Why do you feel this research is important to your field of study, and beyond?
 I think, or rather hope, the material we developed will push the field to think outside of the box. We need to be really creative to create better implant materials. The fact that the hip implant has not changed that much since that first designed by Charnley in the 1960s disappoints me. So we are starting by throwing all conventional thinking aside to develop more natural nanostructured materials to be injected to heal tissues. Our tissues are naturally nanostructured, by the way.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research/process? 
A: The most surprising aspect of the material we developed is how quickly it solidifies into a material just as strong as bone. Usually, for injectable materials, you have to give up strength for fast solidification. By emulating DNA, we have created a material which can solidify within minutes inside the body and posses mechanical strength equivalent to bone. Of course, we can change the concentration of our material to have strengths less than bone and closer to other tissues, like cartilage.

Q: What is the take home message of your research and results? 
A: The bottom line from our approach and material is to look at the body to develop more natural materials and personalize such materials for the patient. For example, we can easily tailor the ability of these materials to grown bone to suite why a particular patient needs an implant. Consider an elderly female who broke her hip due a fall and that she has osteoporotic bone. Right now, that patient would essentially get the same implant as a teenager who was in a car accident. But our material could be modified for the elderly female to promote bone growth more than usual since her bones would be comprised in terms of their ability to grow bone. In a sense, we are creating materials for the future of personalized medicine. That can not be done with today's titanium.

Q: What is next for you and your research?
We need to do a lot more animal testing and then eventually human clinical trials. But we have a great team, with Dr. Hicham Fenniri from the Univ. of Alberta and our industry colleagues to help.

Compiled by Michelle Longo