Could osteoporosis be reversed by using a biocomposite material as
a framework for bone tissue regeneration? Discoveries made recently
through quantitative 3-D supramolecular imaging, a tool adapted by
NC States Dr. Richard J. Spontak, make it a very real possibility.
Spontak, a professor of chemical engineering
as well as materials science and engineering, announced the imaging
technique early last year as a method to create three-dimensional
images for scientific visualization, study, and measurement of nanostructured
polymers at the nanometer level. Recently, he and his
collaborators used the technique to identify quantitative similarities
between synthetic polymers and bone tissue.
To reveal these similarities, Spontak and an international, multidisciplinary
research team used quantitative 3-D imaging techniques to compare
the structural patterns of two kinds of polymer systems with samples
of trabecular bonethe porous bone found in the spine and articulating
joints. The investigators focused on the unique characteristics shared
by these manufactured and naturally-occurring bicontinuous morphologiesdescribed
as asymmetrical, irregularly channeled spatial structures resembling
the inside of a sponge. What intrigued Spontak and his colleagues
was the discovery that structural characteristics of sponge-like
synthetic polymers and trabecular bone are strikingly similar, despite
substantial differences in origin and scale.
With this knowledge, we can start to think of designing the
polymer equivalent of bone at nanoscale dimensions, Spontak
said. The polymer could be used to initiate finer, but similar
structure off existing bone. Because the polymer is more highly interconnected
at smaller scales and could serve as a template for stronger structural
materials, it could help people who need bone grafts, as well as people
who suffer from osteoporosis.
The understanding of the nanoscale molecular structure that led to
this discovery is related directly to the development of quantitative
3-D imaging methods. When the method was announced, it was valued
primarily as a tool for research
scientists, and its potential for application was not fully realized.
Scientists no longer had to rely on mathematical models that only
approximate the potentially complex nature of nanostructured polymers.
With 3-D imaging, investigators are able to see inside
and quantify these nanostructures for the first time, much as an MRI
allows physicians to see inside their patients in three-dimensions.
This makes the technique ideally suited for studying the design or
nanostructures, as well as defect formation.
Learning more about the structure, connectivity, and
material properties of nanostructured polymers is important,
Spontak said, but the possibility of extending that knowedge
to other systems in ways not apparent at the time of discovery is
truly exciting. This imaging technique and the accompanying
methods of analysis allow in-depth study of any nanostructured polymer
at length scales greater than about one nanometer (or about one thousandth
of the width of a human hair). They also provide a direct approach
for developing relationships between structure and properties of interest
in commercial applications.
All research knowledge is valuable, Spontak says, even
if it cant be used immediately. Im confident that people
will come to appreciate the utility and potential of this technique
more and more, especially in light of the growing importance of nanotechnology
in today's society.
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