Laboratory-engineered noses, jaws and ears. The stuff science fiction is made of is coming soon from a University of Akron lab. With a $390,000 NSF grant, Matthew Becker, UA professor of polymer science and biomedical engineering, is developing 3-D-printed biodegradable polymer scaffolds, the frameworks within which bone will grow, with the hope of changing the face of craniofacial reconstruction.
Functionalized with peptides and proteins on their surface, the polymer material is designed to accelerate bone generation. Imagine an infantry solder with a gunshot wound that shattered his jaw or a person born with a birth defect such as a missing nose. The absent bone is replaced by new bone, which grows on a polymer scaffold custom-designed via 3-D printing according to a patient's own MRI and CT scanned images. Applied under the skin by a reconstructive surgeon, the polymer scaffold breaks down into amino acids, carbon dioxide and normal body metabolites when the new bone sets.
Becker explains that the biodegradable polymer scaffolds come ready-made with functional groups on the surface that can be decorated with peptides and proteins that cause new bone to form. While previous 3-D printing technology has attempted to create such scaffolds, the diversity of polymer material used in the filament feed stocks has been limited, reducing the accessible chemical and physical properties that initiate bone growth.
"Recently we've discovered a combination of peptide concentrations capable of accelerating human mesenchymal stem cell differentiation into bone. We are now working on translating these peptides to our 3-D printed scaffolds without additives to make them functional exclusively on the surface, where the bone growth is necessary for head- and neck-injury applications," Becker says.
Becker anticipates that his three-year research endeavor will result in technology ready for clinical trials. For future recipients of this discovery, he sees promising and life-changing outcomes: mechanically strong replaced bone produced with minimal inflammation and within a short healing period.
"Soldiers and others survivors with traumatic injuries that leave them without a portion of their face, that's a tough life to live," Becker says. "What we're developing is the promise of a readily made and applied breakthrough medical solution that has life-changing potential for people who previously had no such option."