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Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Scientists hail bone putty
Metal pins are often used to repair fractures
Scientists have developed a substance which can be used to help fractured bones to heal and could significantly reduce the need for major surgery.

Scientists at the University of Colorado in the US believe their material, which resembles putty, could revolutionise the treatment of bone fractures.

The material is designed to degrade like a bar of soap

Amy Burkoth, University of Colorado
Their technique involves using the material to hold bones together instead of metal pins and cements that are normally used.

The material is biodegradable so it dissolves inside the body. That means there is no need for surgery to remove the substance or other items, such as metal pins which can become ineffective over time.

Currently, an external cast is used to hold broken bones in place. To treat more serious fractures, metal pins, plates and screws are surgically inserted inside the body.

However, Amy Burkoth, from the University of Colorado, who carried out this latest research, suggested that the use of metal pins is not ideal.

"They shield the injured bone and prevent complete healing and often require second surgery for removal.

She suggested that ideally any material used to repair fractures should have the strength of metal but be temporary so it dissolves as the bone heals.

Existing biodegradable materials are inadequate, according to Burkoth, who said that they deteriorate into gelatinous globs that lack the strength needed to hold fractured bones together.

Inner strength

The new material dissolves from the surface inward, so retaining its strength much longer. It can also be tailored to degrade over a couple of days or over a much longer period, even as long as a year, if required.

"The material is designed to degrade like a bar of soap and we can tailor the degradation rate so it can exactly match the bone's healing rate," she said.

However, more work needs to be done on the material. At the moment, if it is applied too thickly it hardens only on the surface and not at the centre which holds the bones in place.

Dr John Ryan, a consultant in A&E at Brighton Healthcare NHS Trust, said the material could have benefits.

"It could certainly have a role in some conditions if a proper clinical trial showed it to be effective. I think it would have benefits."

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