Graphene Shows Promise for Repairing Broken Bones

When you were a kid, did you ever sign a classmate’s cast
after they broke an arm or a leg? Your name would be on display
there for the rest of the semester. Broken bones are one of the
worst trade-offs in childhood—a few seconds of calamity followed
by months of boring rest and recovery. But children in the future
may have a different story to tell as emerging tech overhauls how
we fix broken bones.

Carbon nanomaterials may have the power to heal bones faster
than a Harry Potter fan can say ‘Brackium Emendo!’ Researchers
from Stefanie A.
team at Carnegie Mellon University have tested a new
formulation of graphene that is
biodegradable, mimics bone, attracts stem cells, and ultimately
improves how animals can repair damage to their skeletons.

As reported in PNAS,
this phosphate graphene serves as a scaffold, allowing the body’s
own cells to more rapidly reform the missing or damaged bone. The
technique has already shown success in mice. As this technology
matures it could become a vital part of orthopedic medicine,
helping us recover faster with stronger, healthier bones.

Cast on the Outside, Scaffold on the Inside

The cornerstone of traditional orthopedic medicine has always
been to immobilize bone breaks and allow the body to repair itself.
Thankfully, our bodies do a great job repairing bones; with proper
setting and enough time, bones can mend even very serious damage,
turning out almost as good as new.

Modern physical therapy and recovery techniques have enhanced
this “set it and forget it” approach by exploring how activity,
diet, and rest can be balanced to get the best results with a
broken bone. Truly traumatic injuries can require surgeries to
install pins, plates, and other structures which mandate longer
recovery times, more physical therapy, and quite frankly, way too
much pain. There’s room for improvement overall, but especially
in these most dramatic cases.

Sydlik’s research into graphene scaffolds represents the
modern approach to orthopedics: going inside the body to maximize
recovery from within. When the graphene is placed on and around the
broken bone tissue, it serves as a structure for bone cells to bond
and grow. Think of it like the wooden lattice you put up in a
garden to encourage vines to climb and flourish. Unlike the garden
lattice, the graphene scaffold is broken down as the bone cells
grow in its place, effectively disappearing as the body repairs the
injury. It’s the perfect patch, performing its job and leaving
little behind.

phosphate graphene scaffoldA phosphate graphene
scaffold encourages bone repair as it degrades harmlessly into the
body. Image Credit: Sydlik et al,
Carnegie Mellon.
A New Idea Made Even Better

The scaffolding approach isn’t new
, but this study shows
improvements in the design, formulation, and production of the
phosphate graphene. Better nanotech methodology may not be very
exciting, but it’s a big deal when your end goal is a practical
health product that should be easy to make and use.

The scaffold is also highly customizable—attracting the right
calcium ions, having a specific tensile strength, and other
physical properties can be ‘programmed’ into the material as it
is made, yielding a material that mimics real bone as closely as

Perhaps most importantly, the study showed that the scaffold can
work with or without the assistance of stem cells (in this case,
bone marrow stromal cells, BMSCs). Most other forms of regenerative
scaffold technology have relied on BMSCs to accelerate repair.

The phosphate graphene, however, provides a structure for normal
bone cells to grow on and encourages them to do so. Being able to
work without BMSCs means this technology would require less complex
treatment plans when used in the real world.

Sooner is Better than Best

There are other technologies out there that could cure broken
bones better than a scaffold, like
printable cells
, nanites, or
. But all of these technologies
are much further from reaching the public. Phosphate graphene
scaffolds would also integrate well with current medical procedures
and care programs.

Once graphene scaffolding becomes an accessible part of
healthcare, its real potential will arrive.
is just carbon atoms arranged in a neat pattern, but
the potential to vary the molecular composition is nearly

As researchers continue to develop it, phosphate graphenes (or
similar graphene derivatives) could be further customized and
optimized with a wide range of physical and chemical properties. 
Scaffolds that attract more stem cells, produce stronger bones, or
pre-emptively deal with future breaks are all possible—that is to
say, we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Image Credit:
Puwadol Jaturawutthichai

Source: *FS – All – Science News 2 Net
Graphene Shows Promise for Repairing Broken Bones