Bone bandages could help broken bones heal way faster

Researchers developed a "bone bandage" helps broken bones heal three times faster

January 9, 2020 

Speeding up the formation of new bones and blood vessels

Broken bones may heal faster thanks to a new type of bandage developed by researchers at Duke University. Call it a bone bandage.

The bandage captures and holds a molecule that promotes healing at the site of the break to speed up and improve the natural healing process. In tests with mice, the bandage sped up the formation of new bone to repair the break as well as the creation of blood vessels around the bone break. Together, those developments helped the broken bone heal three weeks faster.

Researchers say the technology could be applied to medical products used in bone repair such as biodegradable bandages, implant coatings or bone grafts for critical injuries. It could provide an important treatment for elderly patients or those suffering from osteoporosis.

How it works

The discovery process actually started in 2014. That’s when Shyni Varghese, professor of biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and materials science, and orthopedics at Duke, started looking at how popular biomaterials made of calcium phosphate promote bone repair and regeneration. She found that a biomolecule called adenosine plays an important role in spurring bone growth. Varghese and her team also discovered that the body naturally floods the area around a new bone injury with those pro-healing adenosine molecules.

It sounds promising. But there’s downside. Those high levels of adenosine are quickly absorbed by the body. Varghese wondered if keeping high levels of the molecule around a bone break longer would help the healing process. The only concern is that the molecule adenosine performs a lot of other functions in the body at low levels that have nothing to do with bone healing. Researchers needed to keep the adenosine near the bone break at appropriate levels to avoid side effects. That’s when researchers came up with the idea of a bandage that could be applied directly to the broken bone.

They created two versions. The first was a biomaterial bandage that contains boronate. It’s a molecule that holds onto adenosine and then slowly releases it, which kept the body’s own natural surge of adenosine close to the bone break and prevented the molecule from building up in other parts of the body. The second bone bandage was similar to the first, but it was also preloaded with additional adenosine to speed healing. When the bone bandages were tested on mice, the animals treated with both types of bandages healed faster than those without. But after three weeks, the mice treated with the adenosine-laced bandage showed better bone formation. 

A boon to patients with osteoporosis and the elderly

The discovery has important implications for anyone with a broken bone, but it’s especially important for treating bone fractures in elderly patients or those with osteoporosis. Patients with osteoporosis don’t produce adenosine when their bones break.

“These early results indicate that these bandages could help deliver the needed adenosine to repair injuries while avoiding potential side effects,” said Varghese. “We’ve demonstrated that this is a viable approach and filed a patent for future devices and treatments, but we still have a long way to go. We want to design an even more efficient bandages to capture and hold on to adenosine. We also need to see whether these results hold in humans or could cause any side effects.” The results appeared online on Dec. 12 in the journal Advanced Materials.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.