Italian scientists have developed a new procedure to make artificial bones from blocks of wood, which may be implanted into large animals and eventually humans, allowing live bones to heal faster and more securely after a break than currently available metal and ceramic implants.
According to a report in Discovery News, the researchers chose wood because it closely resembles the physical structure of natural bone, "which is impossible to reproduce with conventional processing technology."
"Our purpose is to convert native wood structures into bioactive, inorganic compounds destined to substitute portions of bone," said Anna Tampieri, a scientist at the Instituto Di Scienza E Techologia Dei Materiali Ceramici in Italy.
To create the bone substitute, the scientists start with a block of wood - red oak, rattan and sipo work best - and heat it until all that remains is pure carbon, which is basically charcoal.
The scientists then spray calcium over the carbon, creating calcium carbide.
Additional chemical and physical steps convert the calcium carbide into carbonated hydroxyapatite, which can then be implanted and serves as the artificial bone.
The entire process takes about one week and costs about 850 dollars for a single block. One block translates to about one bone implant.
The researchers also note that they can create virtually any size or shape.
"Wood-based implants would have several advantages over traditional titanium or ceramic implants," said Tampieri.
Since their physical structure is more spongy than solid, like many metal or ceramic implants, live bone should grow into wood-derived bone substitute quicker and more securely.
Wood-derived bone substitute are still not cleared for use in humans. The scientists are currently limited to sheep.
"Application in humans is likely years away," said Tampieri.
For now, however, wood-derived materials may be put to other use.
"Materials able to maintain adequate properties at extremely high temperatures and mechanical stress are highly sought after for use in several different applications," said Tampieri.
"For example, catalytic silencers, space vehicles, turbine equipment for power generation plants and aircraft engines, like turbine blades, vanes, shrouds, and combustor components, and metal forming and glass blowing equipment," she added.
According to Frank Muller, a researcher at the Institute of Materials Science and Technology in Germany, until wood-derived bone subtitutes are available to humans, there are many other potential applications for these materials.