Biomaterials are going to revolutionize modern medicine — at least that’s what everyone says. The truth is that biomaterials have already done that.
Biomaterials — materials that can replace or restore function to a body tissue — are being used in all manner of medical procedures. They are used in hip and knee replacements, to replace heart valves, to improve vision, to repair and replace teeth, deliver drugs to specific sites in the body, treat tumors and arthritis and much more.
The development of biomaterials is not a new concept for UMR researchers. More than 20 years ago, they started working with porcelain and aluminum for dental and medical applications. Today, some of the most profound research in biomaterials at UMR is occurring in ceramic engineering and biological sciences, where researchers are studying new ceramic materials for orthopedic implants, drug delivery and bone replacement.
Len Rahaman, professor of ceramic engineering, and Sonny Bal, a physician at the University of Missouri Health Sciences Center in Columbia, are investigating ways to improve orthopedic implants by switching from plastics to ceramics. The demand for such implants is predicted to rise as baby boomers age. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons projects that by 2030, the number of yearly hip and knee replacements in the United States is expected to nearly double — from 138,000 hip replacements in 1996 to 248,000 by 2030, and from 245,000 knee replacements to 454,000.
Polyethylene is currently the most common material used in implants, but over time it leaves debris that is absorbed by surrounding tissue and can cause bone loss, Rahaman says. A better approach, he says, is to use ceramic implants.
"Ceramic implants have better properties," says Rahaman. "I expect the ceramic bearing’s wear is much lower and would last significantly longer than the bearings made of high-density polyethylene."
Ceramic implants will last longer than the polyethylene products, Rahaman says. This in turn will translate into fewer replacements, which in turn will lead to lower medical expenses for patients. "By improving these implants there is a potential for reducing the trauma to the patient," both physically and financially, Rahaman says.
Already a few companies are manufacturing the ceramic joints. Some of Bal’s patients are using the ceramic bearings as well.