Scientists Developed a Polymer Sponge to Repair the Spine

Most of us played with the magic capsules in our childhood, which grew into animal-shaped sponges in water. Scientists are using a similar idea to better treat cancer patients.

Lichun Lu and Xifeng Lu, scientists from Mayo Clinic’s college of medicine, havedeveloped a novel spinal graft that, once surgically placed in the body, will grow to be just the right size and shape to fix the spinal column. They presented their work at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“The overall goal of this research is to find ways to treat people with metastatic spinal tumors,” says Lichun Lu, Ph.D. “The spine is the most common site of skeletal metastases in cancer patients, but unlike current treatments, our approach is less invasive and is inexpensive.”

For some biological reasons, when cancer spreads through the body via a process named metastasis, it predominantly tends to appear in the spinal column. Infected bone tissue can be cut out, which leaves a large gap in the spine. There are two ways to do this. Typically, surgeons would open the chest cavity and access the spine from far side that entails a high probability of complications and lengthy recovery. In the second option, they would make a small incision in the back and inject short, expandable rods made of titanium to strengthen the spinal column. This process would take quick recovery but be very costly.

So, Lu’s team is working on a third option which is less expensive and less invasive. In this process, doctors just cut a small hole in patient’s back and inject a biodegradable polymer made of hydrogel into the bone gap much the same way they would a titanium rod. The polymer grows to fill the gap by absorbing the fluids from the wound. The expansion can be controlled as the surgeons would first insert a pre-expanded hollow shell called cage, which the polymer fill in as it spreads. It will take 5 to 10 minutes for the polymer to fill the gap, then it will set and tighten into a durable prosthetic and eventually surrounding bone tissue will grow into it, cementing it in place.

In the coming months, Mayo team is planning to trial the cadaver –based tests. If the trials are successful, experiments on living people will follow in the next few years.

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