Building bone and beyond

blocks of bone-like foam made from nanocellulose on black background
Samples of a nanocellulose composite material developed at UMaine and engineered to contain a similar structure to bone.

Biomaterials that address existing and emerging challenges in human health are in high demand, and this is another area in which nanocellulose shows real promise.

One of many health care-related solutions that researchers at the University of Maine, led by Dr. Michael Mason, are developing is a nanocellulose composite material for use in orthopedics that promotes the growth of strong natural bone while safely dissolving over time, eliminating the need for metal devices that can be expensive, dense, stiff, prone to infection, and often require costly follow-up surgeries for removal. The nanocellulose composite developed at UMaine, by contrast, is a cost-effective, customizable, resorbable, porous platform biomaterial with the potential to help optimize the healing process for patients. It could be used as a synthetic bone, surgical bone scaffold, or bone grafting implement, designed for dissolution and gradual replacement with native bone cells.

The affordability of the CNF material is attractive in itself, but the value proposition becomes significant when combined with the potential cost savings that would be realized by eliminating follow-up surgeries. The U.S. market for orthopedic fixation devices is around $4.6 billion, annually, servicing approximately 11 million individuals. Clinical studies show that of the approximately 11 Million fixation surgeries every year, more than 15 percent of patients require removal of the metal device, in a second surgery, due to mechanical complications, osteoarthritis, infection, or nonunion of bone. These approximately 2 million procedures cost tens of thousands of dollars each and cost hospital systems billions of dollars annually. This material system could also serve as an alternative to existing bone graft materials, which often are derived from cadaver. This global market is approaching $10 billion annually. In this space, physicians identify a need for lower cost, less brittle yet stiff, materials that promote bone in-growth and speed the healing process.