Several years ago a team of molecular scientists looking for something better than surgical screws to hold broken bones together created an amazing product.
They cooked up a vat of synthetic polymers that acted like the "super glue" for bones they were after, but which also could be programmed to turn into something like milk when the fracture had healed.
"We were very surprised," says Dr. Thilak Gunatillake, a member of the team working on the project.
"For all its strength it had a very porous structure. When we realized that it would allow blood to pass through instead of behaving like a solid block as well as providing the spaces where cells and tissue could regrow, we knew it was going to be the key to more than holding broken bones in place while they healed," Gunatillake said.
Gunatillake said further tweaking of the formula quickly produced a class of polymer glue that decays into substances similar to lactose and could be totally metabolized into the body.
He explained that polymer is a very broad term for long thin strings of molecules. Natural examples of polymers include rubber, amber, silk and the very structure of DNA itself.
The work was funded by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which has now been spun off into Polymerco, as part of a listed company 50:50 owned by private investors and the government body.
The risk for funding further development will now carried by the shareholders, but as the government remains a half owner, it will also reap half the rewards if it turns into the success Polymerco's chief executive, Dr Ian Griffiths, says it could become.
"We have up to 18 months work to do before we meet all the regulatory obstacles to making commercial products," Griffiths says.
"That will be followed by a few more years before bringing our first applications of these new medical polymers to the market,' he says.
"The bone glue itself will be first. It will an injected substance that will eliminate screwing together fragments of bone and will be especially useful for the terrible facial injuries in which a caste cannot be used in the way they are applied today to broken arms and legs," he said.
"We think we will eliminate casts altogether. But the second product will surprise the medical profession because it will be a new type of stent for treating heart problems," he said.
Griffiths says the metallic stents, or mesh-like expanding devices used to improve blood flow to the heart, are usually implanted for life, even though they often become clogged and have to be by-passed by further surgery.
"Our stents will simply dissolve away when their work is done, leaving an improved arterial path. The stent market alone is worth US$2 billion a year on latest American figures, and demand is growing at more than 10 percent a year,' he said.
Gunatillake says continuing research shows that the bone glue can also be used in the curse of all footballers -- the tearing of the cruciate ligament in a player's knee.
"In current trials, we are seeing evidence that the glue also allows better natural recovery by ligament tissue, as all of the normal nutrients and metabolic processes can coexist with the foam -- like structure of the glue while it protects the area of the injury,' he said.
"When the bone or ligament injury has been repaired, there is no possibility of stiffness or reduced mobility from screws or wires that can't be removed without a further and often self-defeating operation," he said.
"Looking further into the future, we think the fact that we can design the speed at which this foam dissipates opens the way for more advanced treatments involving the slow release of regenerative substances in areas of muscular degeneration in the course of treatments for some of the consequences of aging," he said.
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