Scientists use Lego toys to grow bones

Dr. Michelle Oyen, team leader and lecturer in the engineering department [Cambridge University, UK], added: “Research is a funny thing because you might think that we order everything up from scientific catalogues – but actually a lot of the things we use around the lab are household items, things that we picked up at the local home goods store – so our Lego robots just fit in with that mind-set.”

That was from the March 28, 2012 news item (Growing bones with Lego) on Oyen’s group at Cambridge University uses the robots to grow synthetic bones as they discuss in this video (from the Cambridge University webpage hosting the March 27, 2012 news release about Lego robots in the lab [it was part of a Google Science Fair promotion],

Here’s a bit more about the robots and about the team’s bone project (from the Cambridge University news release),

 “To make the bone-like substance you take a sample, then you dip it into one beaker of calcium and protein, then rinse it in some water and dip in into another beaker of phosphate and protein – you have to do it over and over and over again to build up the compound, [as seen in the video]” says Daniel Strange, one of the PhD students working on the research.

After a bit of investigation the researchers decided to build cranes from a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit, which contains microprocessors, motors, and sensors that can be programmed to perform basic tasks on repeat. The sample is tied to string at the end of the crane which then dips it in the different solutions.

The team quickly discovered that the miniature machines made from the famous plastic blocks vastly reduced the human time cost of creating the bone samples: “the great thing about the robots is once you tell them what to do they can do it very precisely over and over again – so a day later I can come back and see a fully made sample,” says Strange.

Bone defects can result from trauma, infection and the removal of tumours, and beyond a certain size of trauma bone is unable to regenerate itself. Current treatments include bone grafts, which can be risky and greatly increase recovery time.

The team at Cambridge are working on hydroxyapatite–gelatin composites to create synthetic bone, and the work is generating considerable interest due to the low energy costs and improved similarity to the tissues they are intended to replace.

Oyen and Strange have published a paper (behind a paywall), Biomimetic bone-like composites fabricated through an automated alternate soaking process, about their biomimetic work and attempts to create scaffolding (synthetic bone) in the journal Acta Biomaterialia. Here’s the abstract,

Hydroxyapatite–gelatin composites have been proposed as suitable scaffolds for bone and dentin tissue regeneration. There is considerable interest in producing these scaffolds using biomimetic methods due to their low energy costs and potential to create composites similar to the tissues they are intended to replace. Here an existing process used to coat a surface with hydroxyapatite under near physiological conditions, the alternate soaking process, is modified and automated using an inexpensive “off the shelf” robotics kit. The process is initially used to precipitate calcium phosphate coatings. Then, in contrast to previous utilizations of the alternate soaking process, gelatin was added directly to the solutions in order to co-precipitate hydroxyapatite–gelatin composites. Samples were investigated by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and nanoindentation. Calcium phosphate coatings formed by the alternate soaking process exhibited different calcium to phosphate ratios, with correspondingly distinct structural morphologies. The coatings demonstrated an interconnected structure with measurable mechanical properties, even though they were 95% porous. In contrast, hydroxyapatite–gelatin composite coatings over 2 mm thick could be formed with little visible porosity. The hydroxyapatite–gelatin composites demonstrate a composition and mechanical properties similar to those of cortical bone.


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