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In some types of bone reconstruction operations, pieces of bone harvested from some other location in the body, such as the pelvis, are used to replace the damaged or diseased bone. This is a painful procedure and recuperation can be slow and protracted.

Dr Michael Mucalo from the University of Waikato Chemistry Department in association with Dr George Dias from the University of Otago have been researching an alternative method. This involves using bovine hydroxyapatite as a bioceramic in place of the harvested bone.

The hydroxyapatite bioceramic is made from the spongy bone material from a cow femur.

Small cubes are cut out and then subjected to chemical and physical processes that remove all the fat and protein. The remaining material is then heated to 1,000°C for several hours. What remains is a sterile, open 3D mineral shell of pure hydroxyapatite.

Small cubes or cylinders of this material can be grafted into the damaged living bone site. Over a period of time, new bone develops and grows in and around the implant. Eventually, successful repair of the damaged bone is achieved.

At present, this novel method has only been tested on animals such as sheep and dogs. The results have been promising, and human clinical trials are not too far away.

One drawback of this method is that it can only be used in non load-bearing settings. However, Dougal Laird, one of Dr Michael Mucalo’s PhD students, is investigating the infiltration of the hydroxyapatite implant with other materials to improve its strength and bioactivity.

Nature of science

Scientific research is frequently conducted across disciplines in a collaborative and co-ordinated way. Dr Michael Mucalo’s research project is a typical example of this.

    Published 27 April 2010 Referencing Hub articles