A British scientist whose research team was almost disbanded five years ago because of doubts over funding has successfully produced the world's first artificial bone, which will be used to treat thousands of Americans next year.
The synthetic substance is an almost perfect replica of natural bone and initial trials in patients show that the body accepts it as its own living tissue. The first application will be to replace the tiny ear bones of American patients with hearing difficulties in a multi-million dollar deal.
Professor William Bonfield, director of biomedical materials at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London, said the artificial bone is so good that it can be used to replace any human bone that is damaged beyond repair by accidents and diseases such as cancer.
In initial clinical trials, surgeons were able to shape the artificial bone to tailor it to the needs of individual patients, he said. "In fact it's far superior to real bone. It's like having a piece of bone that you can shape. It works extremely well."
Although the first application is to replace the tiny bones of the middle- ear Professor Bonfield hopes to use it to develop a new artificial hip joint that will not need expensive replacement surgery after a few years, unlike existing artificial hip joints made from stainless steel.
Of the 40,000 hip replacements performed each year in the UK, which is one of the single biggest costs within the NHS, nearly one in five fails within a few years because steel joints do not mimic natural bone well enough. "Bone begins to grow away from the joint, causing it to loosen," he said.
"What we've produced is a smart material because it seduces bone into believing it's the real thing."
Professor Bonfield's group, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has licensed the invention to medical suppliers Smith and Nephew-Richards.
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