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Regrowing Bone to Heal Fractures

The risk of fracturing a bone is high whether on a sports field or battlefield.

Kurt Hankenson, a Michigan State University veterinary scientist and expert in bone regeneration, is finding ways to improve the healing process when it comes to fractured bones. He was recently awarded two new grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense totaling $4.2 million.

Eight million fractures occur nationally each year and up to 13 percent never heal the right way. That’s potentially over 1 million compromised bones annually among the U.S. population. And if you’re serving in the military, over 50 percent of combat-related injuries involve bone, muscle or other parts of the musculoskeletal system.

Kurt Hankenson

Kurt Hankenson

“We know that the rate of healing with fractures gets worse as we get older,” Hankenson said. “My research looks at identifying ways of helping the body heal at any age and using different techniques to help fractures heal faster.”

Hankenson, along with MSU collaborator Leslie Kuhn, is investigating a new technique through his $1.7 million DOD funding that has the potential to help fix the most difficult fractures, including bone that has broken in multiple spots or hasn’t healed properly.

“Notch signaling is a pathway in the body that regulates cells that form bone,” he said. “We can enhance this activity by activating this pathway with certain proteins that bind together.”

Using these bound proteins, Hankenson and his research team will combine them with collagen sponges, an FDA-approved, biodegradable material that will be used as a therapeutic and implanted into the injury.

So far earlier studies have shown significant regeneration and healing of bone using the material in mice. His new study will further these efforts and eventually could lead to using the technique on humans.

“During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, bone fractures represented 26 percent of all injuries to the arms, hands, legs and feet of our soldiers,” Hankenson said. “Through our research, we can show that Notch signaling can be manipulated to promote accelerated healing of injuries in people whether they happen on the battlefield or anywhere else.”

His $2.5 million NIH research project involves understanding how certain proteins regulate the body’s response to promote or even block the healing process. In many cases, a highly produced protein called thrombospondin can work against broken blood vessels trying to re-establish themselves to improve healing after a fracture.

“Thrombospondin is produced to regulate the body’s vascular response to an injury,” he said. “In many cases though, these proteins can become over stimulated and start to inhibit healing.”

To stop this negative effect, Hankenson’s team is looking to block these proteins so the body can continue to properly heal itself.

“If we can help people to heal faster and more effectively, then our mission to improve quality of life and overall health following a bone injury can become a reality,” Hankenson said.

The University of California at San Francisco, University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh are all contributors to Hankenson’s NIH study.

Kurt Hankenson, Sarina Gleason via MSU Today

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