Healing a broken bone can be a lengthy — and painful — process. One way to speed it up? Add electricity. When bones are placed under pressure, they naturally produce a small electric current that encourages bone cell growth.
Doctors have long taken advantage of this fact, using implants to deliver electrical stimulation to broken bones. The problem is that these implants often contain toxic batteries and require patients to undergo removal surgeries. Now, the University of Connecticut engineers has created an implant that overcomes its predecessors’ shortcomings, delivering electrical stimulation to broken bones in a safer, less-invasive way.
At the center of the UConn team’s creation, detailed in the journal Nano Energy, is a substance more often associated with smoothing faces than healing bones: PLLA. But rather than simply building an electrical stimulation implant out of PLLA, the UConn team decided to fashion it into a bone scaffold — something for the new bone cells to grow on. Once in place, an external ultrasound could then be used to very slightly vibrate the implant, generating a small electric voltage. After a while, the implant would simply dissolve on its own.
The UConn researchers are now trying to answer the question that’s puzzled doctors for decades: Why does electrical stimulation encourage bone growth in the first place? If they can figure that out, they’ll be able to use the information to further develop their implant, making it even more conducive to bone growth.