Mind & Body

Scientists Are Healing Broken Bones with the Help of Bubbles

Add some ultrasound technology, gene therapy, and some microbubbles, stir together, and what do you get? A revolutionary new way of healing broken bones that could have a major clinical impact.

The Dangers of Serious Fractures

According to Science, in the United States alone, about 100,000 people a year suffer from a nonunion fracturein other words, a fracture that's so bad that it won't heal without a bone graft, taken either from the person's own body or a cadaver. But, as noted in the study press release, those bone grafts still mean long-term hospitalization and disability. Often, donor bone also fails to integrate into a patient's own body, leading to even more complications.

All of this makes nonunion fractures serious business. "People are shocked when I tell them that the life expectancy with a nonunion fracture is shorter than with pancreatic cancer," Edward Schwarz, director of the University of Rochester's Center for Musculoskeletal Research, told The Verge. "We're like horses. If we can't get up and walk again, then we're done."

Microbubbles In Micropigs

Researchers have been searching for years for an alternative to bone grafts, and a new study published in Science Translational Medicine just may point the way forward. First, researchers surgically created 0.4-inch fractures in the shins of 18 minipigs. They then tried a new type of healing technique, using gene therapy, ultrasound—and bubbles.

It works like this: researchers pack a wound with collagen, which encourages the growth of bone-forming stem cells. To make sure that these stem cells turn into what they're after—not fat or scar tissue, for instance—they inject a solution containing proteins designed to trigger the stem cells to become bone-forming cells. To get those proteins into the stem cells, the solution also contains microbubbles, which burst when researchers expose them to an ultrasound wand. That pokes tiny holes in the stem cells and allows the proteins to enter. The result? After eight weeks, the researchers found that the pigs' bones had all healed.

Of course, scientists need to do more research before the technique is brought to clinical trials. Some researchers note that the pigs in the study were very young (about a year old), so more studies are needed to see whether older pigs can also recover in the same way. Still, doctors are excited about the new possibilities. Johnny Huard, an orthopedics researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, told Science that the results are "just the type of thing we need to move this field forward."

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Written by Stephanie Bucklin May 30, 2017

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