Bone, heal thyself

Leeds University researchers believe advances in materials technology could offer new hope to millions of osteoporosis sufferers by helping fractured bones to repair themselves.

Dr Ruth Wilcox of the university’s school of mechanical engineering aims to produce custom-developed cements for injection into the injured spines of people afflicted by brittle bone disease, which is widespread especially among elderly women.

Wilcox’s work will centre on improving a technique called percutaneous vertebroplasty (PVP), a keyhole surgery treatment for damaged spines.

PVP involves the injection of a bio-compatible cement directly into the backbone, providing support for fractured or compressed vertebrae and easing pain.

According to Wilcox, the use of a new generation of advanced materials to make the cement holds out the prospect of taking PVP beyond pain relief and into the realm of active treatment.

She said recently developed hydroxyapatite-forming materials could encourage the natural repair of a patient’s damaged bones. Hydroxyapatite, a calcium phosphate salt, is the main mineral constituent of bones and teeth and provides most of their rigidity.

Wilcox claimed the research could also bring other significant benefits. ‘We might even be able to use bone cement to manage tumours by incorporating slow-release drugs,’ she said.

PVP injects cement into the spine through a minor incision. When carried out under local anaesthetic it is virtually painless and patients can often go home the same day. PVP is particularly well suited to elderly people – who form the bulk of osteoporosis sufferers – because it causes less trauma than full-scale surgery.

However, while it is fairly well established in the US, PVP is less common in UK hospitals. The Leeds University team claimed that developing the cement so that it can provide demonstrable extra benefits would encourage PVP’s wider use.

Wilcox has been awarded a five-year research fellowship by the Royal Academy of Engineering to continue her work.

On the web