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July 3, 2004
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  Bone That Grows Back    
  Spare Parts 08.28.01
Bioengineers across the country are developing spare parts for you using your own tissues.

Growing Stronger Bones 05.11.00
Women aged 50 and over who garden at least once a week showed higher bone density readings than women who engage in almost any other form of exercise.

  Nanotechnology: What is It?

Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers - 2002 nanotechnology report, chaired by Stupp, from the National Research Council

Exploiting Molecular Self-Assembly - from Industrial Physicist (12/00)

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Suppose you break a bone, and go to the emergency room. Imagine that a doctor there could start growing your bone back. As this ScienCentral News video reports, one nanotechnologist says he’s taken a big step towards making this medical miracle real.

Boning Up

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than half of all injuries that befall Americans every year involve a broken bone or an injured joint. As the huge baby-boom generation continues to pass the age of 50, bone and joint injuries affect the lives of many more people. As people age and their bones grow thinner, fractures can cripple permanently.

At present, the solution to arthritic, cancerous or injured bones and joints is stainless-steel replacements. Metal can match the strength of natural bone, but it is heavy and inflexible—not to mention embarrassing when your new knee triggers security alarms at airport checkpoints.

At Northwestern University, chemist Samuel I. Stupp thinks that a material designed to match bone more closely than metal could encourage natural bone cells to form layers around it and speed healing. Stupp, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine, believes that nanotechnology can lead to regenerative medicine, where the body heals itself. He likes to mimic nature by working from the bottom up: “We design molecules so that they organize themselves into new materials to solve medical problems”—like the challenge of making bone that grows back.

The bone-growing scaffold.
Natural bone is made up of tough collagen fibers, one of the most common components in the body, and mineral crystals, which gather on collagen scaffolds and add hardness. So far, Stupp and his researchers have succeeded in tailoring organic molecules to assemble themselves into very long collagen-like fibers, and then to entice mineral crystals to grow on them. The resulting webs of mineral-coated nanofibers take the form of a very thin film whose structure closely mimics bone.

So far, Stupp and his laboratory team are encouraged by how well their coated nanofibers are working with real bone cells. “Natural bone cells live happily with our nanomaterials,” he says. “They stay alive, and in some cases they proliferate. If you want to grow bone or tissue, you need cells to proliferate.”

Stupp anticipates a day when the bone cells of a patient who has suffered a fracture could be taken to a lab. There the cells could be “put in contact with our designed materials, which will trigger the formation of that person’s bone.”

Beyond artificial bone, Stupp is working on regenerating cartilage, nerve cells, and even the spinal cord.

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