UA Little Rock reseachers pioneer device to speed bone regeneration

Dr. Alexandru Biris is chief scientist and director of the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences at UA Little Rock.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock collaborates with many diverse partners, from NASA to the U.S. Navy to the National Park Service. However, two of its latest partners break the mold: a young alpaca and a rodeo cow, both of whom have a new lease on life thanks to technology developed by the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences (CINS) at UA Little Rock and researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

This technology, the NuCress™ scaffold, is a nanomaterial-based bone regeneration device pioneered by UA Little Rock’s Dr. Alexandru S. Biris, a systems engineering professor, Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable Trust Nanotechnology chair, and director of the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences. Biris’s long-time research partner, Dr. David Anderson, is professor and head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM). Together, Biris, Anderson, and their teams have designed, patented, and tested the NuCress™ scaffold.

The scaffold is implanted directly at the wound site by a surgeon and can be loaded with drugs to fight infection or with hormones and stem cells to encourage bone growth. As a result, the scaffold can deliver bacteria-fighting drugs directly to the wound site and be safely absorbed by the body—generally eliminating the need for additional surgeries. It is currently in the preclinical stages of development.

Supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, the NuCress™ scaffold is showing great promise in preliminary studies. But this year, it has moved out of the lab and into the field, restoring two severely injured animals to full health.

Healing Hercules

Hercules the alpaca
Hercules the alpaca

Hercules the alpaca was only 24 hours old when he broke his leg on his ranch in Lebanon, Tennessee. The baby animal received a plasma transfusion and was bottle-fed for months. To make matters worse, the open wound and exposed bone led to a serious infection, which prevented the bone break from healing properly. As a result, the animal’s veterinarian referred him to UTCVM for advanced treatment.

Dr. Pierre-Yves Mulon, UTCVM assistant professor in Farm Animal Medicine and Surgery, was the expert orthopedic surgeon who oversaw Hercules’s case. Having worked with both the latest commercially available technologies and the NuCress™ scaffold, Mulon determined that the scaffold was the best option to heal the fragile animal. He trimmed the scaffold to match the break, loaded it with antibiotics, implanted it in the wound…and waited.

Given Hercules’s condition, Mulon expected a long road to recovery. But the NuCress™ scaffold quickly exceeded expectations.

“Hercules responded well and fast,” Mulon said. “He was able to walk immediately after surgery and has been very active. The bone repaired within the time range expected for a closed fracture, though it was an open one.”

Mulon explained that while other options, such as traditionally administered drugs or implantable antimicrobial beads, could have been used, they would have presented more obstacles, such as future surgeries.

“It is difficult to confirm if the results would have changed using any other option; however, I think it would have necessitated more time,” said Mulon, adding, “Any open fracture carries a guarded to poor prognosis, and Hercules made it, and we are very happy.”

Joining the Rodeo

A much tougher test of the scaffold’s abilities came this fall, with much higher stakes. Mulon was faced with a gravely injured prize breeding cow in the rodeo industry. Considered a genetic founder of the herd, this pricey bovine was suffering from a complicated, chronic bone infection in her leg. The infection was so severe that the cow had already undergone one unsuccessful surgery, and options were limited. Traditional treatments, with their need for future surgeries and their delayed infection fighting, could have actually harmed the vulnerable cow more.

Dr. Pierre-Yves Mulon, assistant professor in Farm Animal Medicine and Surgery, University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine
Dr. Pierre-Yves Mulon, assistant professor in Farm Animal Medicine and Surgery, University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine

Time was running out. Remembering Hercules’ remarkable results, Mulon and the animal’s owner decided to take a risk. Mulon implanted an antibiotic-loaded NuCress™ scaffold in the cow’s injured leg. Though he was hopeful that the scaffold would work a miracle, Mulon gave the animal’s owner a bleak prognosis—x-rays indicated that the wound could be too far gone to heal.

“She was suffering such a deep orthopedic infection that…she would have been put to sleep if the bone infection could not be resolved,” Mulon said.

But, once again, the NuCress™ scaffold exceeded expectations. The infection completely healed, and, after a lengthy recovery, the cow is back home and well on her way to being a functioning member of the herd again.

“I strongly believe that the slow release of antibiotics over a prolonged period of time [by the scaffold] helped this cow tremendously and led to the successful outcome,” Mulon asserted. “I have not seen any product comparable to this one.”

Looking to the Future

Having worked on the scaffold for over a decade, Biris and Anderson share Mulon’s enthusiasm.

“We are very happy that these animals are benefiting from the technology,” Biris said.

But alpacas and cows are just the beginning of the scaffold’s story. Supported by an over $5 million grant from the Department of Defense, Biris, Anderson, and their teams are optimizing the NuCress™ scaffold for use in long bone. Additionally, NuShores Biosciences, LLC—the company commercializing the device—is preparing to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for regulatory approval of the scaffold, moving it one step closer to human use. The teams also are seeking funding to expand the scaffold’s uses to other types of wounds and areas of the body. If successful, the NuCress™ scaffold could become an essential part of the bone-healing process for injured soldiers, car accident victims, cancer survivors, and more.

Contributing Writer:  Emily Davis, Content/Grant Writer, Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences

This work was supported by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, Defense Medical Research and Development Program, under Award No. W81XWH-15-1-0666. Opinions, interpretations, conclusions and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense. In conducting research using animals, the investigator(s) adheres to the laws of the United States and regulations of the Department of Agriculture.

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