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Revolution In Bone Surgery Possible

24 January 2005

Revolution In Bone Surgery Possible

New technology from the University of Otago looks set to revolutionise bone surgery.

Researchers Dr George Dias and Dr Phil Peplow have developed keratin based bone devices which help bones heal faster, cleaner and more naturally.

The work is a collaborative effort between the University and Christchurch bio-technology company, Keratec, resulting in the patented technology now having been sold to Keratec to be commercialised.

Keratin is a protein present in hair, skin, finger nails, horns and hooves of animals and in wool. Keratec is able to extract approximately 90% of the keratin from wool fibre. It is tough and versatile and is being used to develop a range of medical and other materials. Keratin can be made into almost any consistency – from a hydro gel (jelly) to almost as strong as hard bone and everything in between.

The main benefits of the keratin-based bone devices are: the body doesn’t reject them they are truly bio-degradable so patients aren’t left with metal or other material in their bodies they are non-toxic and non-irritating they will usually remove the need for a second operation that is sometimes required, for example where a patient’s rib is used to repair a jaw, reducing clinical time, hospital time and recovery time

At this stage, the keratin bone technology has been successfully tested in a number of research models, and the commercialisation will enable further research and human trials.

“The keratin bone devices are a good example of industry and science coming together,” says Colin Dawson, CEO Otago Innovation Limited (OIL).

“We believe Keratec has the capability and commitment to take charge of this technology for the next phase of medical device development with the research team continuing to trial and develop these and others medical uses of keratin,” says Mr Dawson.

As an oral and facial surgeon, Dr Dias had used most materials to reconstruct facial injuries – from stainless steel and titanium to chemical polymers and animal based products – and he thought there had to be a better way. He joined Otago University 10 years ago and started to research the options.

“One day I was looking at my finger nails – which are made of keratin – and thought this would be an ideal material to use as a bone substitute,” says Dr Dias. In 2000, he approached colleague Dr Phil Peplow – another University of Otago researcher with a chemistry background – about the possibility of using keratin.

“By studying the scientific literature we realised it would be possible but that apparently no one had been able to formulate a keratin extraction for use in the body,” Dr Peplow says. “We focused on using keratin from sheep wool and worked with Dr Rob Kelly of Keratec to develop a resilient, versatile material.

“We tested the product in appropriate research models and found new bone forming that healed bone defects,” says Dr Peplow.

Subsequent investigations demonstrated positive results that were far beyond the expectations of Dr Dias.

“I was very surprised by our initial results because there was nothing to refine. There was absolutely no reaction or rejection – things you might expect with a foreign protein in the body. The body treated the keratin as if it were a piece of bone that had become detached, and went through the normal repair process,” Dr Dias says.

“After a time there was no sign of the keratin material and in its place we got new bone forming. You don’t see that occurring with metals, polymers or anything.”

Dr Dias believes the product will be very cost effective to produce. “New Zealand produces a lot of wool, and most of it is used in primary products like carpet. This use really adds value to a product that is plentiful.”


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