A soldier’s femur is shattered by a roadside bomb blast. A doctor injects a special dough-like material into his leg, and he is running around again in a few days.
The victim avoids the multiple surgeries, lengthy rehabs and amputations that many troops today face in the same situation.
This scenario seems impossible, but researchers are making big strides toward developing a putty that can regenerate bone and allow the injured to function normally during the healing process. If this “fracture putty” proves successful, the benefits will be revolutionary, said Mauro Ferrari, president of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston.
The body can heal itself after cuts, burns and minor fractures. But there is a dimension of bone injuries so severe that the body cannot fix itself, Ferrari said. The putty would be used in these cases to allow the patient complete mobility while bone, blood vessels and nerves are regenerated. The putty — a composite of plastic, silicon, biological molecules and protein — eventually would degrade over time inside the body.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency two years ago called on researchers from a variety of institutions to help develop the composite. Ferrari’s organization is the lead on the project, which late last year took a giant step forward when the putty was used to re-grow broken tibias in four sheep. Researchers in Texas plan to test the putty in 40 sheep. Surgeons at Walter Reed Army Medical Center will conduct another 40 experiments.
The putty still must be tested extensively on the animals and, if DARPA gives the approval, in medical clinics. If all experiments go smoothly, the mixture could be used on human patients in as soon as three years, Ferrari said.
“It would be earth-shattering if we were able to bring this to the clinic,” he said. “And I think we will be successful.”