Three Penn State scientists have received national honors for their pioneering research, begun more than 40 years ago, that led to the development of implant materials widely used today in human bone and joint repairs. Della Roy, Eugene W. White, and the late Jon N. Weber were among eight researchers nationwide recognized with the newly created Golden Goose award, sponsored by American Association of Universities and other educational and scientific organizations.
The Golden Goose Award demonstrates the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and benefited society in significant ways. The name of the award is based on the fable about the goose that laid golden eggs.
"Penn State conducts more than $800 million in annual research, providing thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth," said Henry C. "Hank"
Foley, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school. "Seeing this recognition for the positive impact on countless lives that a handful of those faculty have had over decades is exciting. This kind of impact is occurring every day through the work of our world class faculty and researchers."
In the early 1970s, White and Weber discovered that certain types of South Pacific coral had the same porous, interconnected microstructure as human bone. The discovery's importance was based on the fact that the human body often detects the foreign origin of implants, sometimes rejecting them outright, but never fully integrating them. A material was needed that encouraged natural tissue to grow into it, locking it in place and forming a protective layer.
Weber, a marine geologist, had a piece of coral scanned at Penn State's Materials Research Laboratory. Materials scientist White happened to see it and noticed its mazelike pore structure -- the same kind of extremely small, interconnected pore structure that might encourage natural tissue growth.
Since natural corals themselves are too brittle to implant, White, Weber and Rodney White, then a medical student at the State University of New York at Syracuse, used them as molds to make replicas. The coral was machined to the desired shape and impregnated with wax. The coral was then dissolved, yielding a wax "negative," which was then infused with ceramic material -- which materials scientist Roy helped to develop -- yielding a prosthetic that had the intricate porosity of natural bone.
Meanwhile, in related research, Roy perfected a process for "pressure-cooking" coral in a vessel containing a phosphate solution. Phosphate replaced the carbonate in the coral, giving it many of the chemical and mechanical properties of human bone and almost eliminating the probability of rejection. While not as strong as metal implants made via the wax method, the processed coral could be machined to the desired shape and worked well as a material for pins, screws and other hardware in low-stress bone and joint repairs.
These methods of producing bone replacement materials were patented and licensed, and have since been widely adopted. The federally funded research conducted by Roy, White and Weber enabled major advances in implant surgery and dramatically improved the quality of life for countless thousands of people.
Roy is currently professor emerita of materials science. Eugene White left the University in 1977. Weber died in 1976.
Visit goldengooseaward.org for more information about the award, its sponsors, selection criteria and a video about the inaugural group of honorees.