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Two men look at samples in a lab.

Matthew Bernards, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, foreground, and graduate student Kevin Zurick, look over the results from testing the two are doing to recreate the mechanical properties of bone without using synthetic materials.

“Hundreds of scientists are working to understand the binding interactions of bone tissues, but not one can replicate the mechanical properties of bone without a polymer,” said Matthew Bernards, a University of Missouri chemical engineering assistant professor, who has made this particular biomaterials puzzle the cornerstone of his research program. His ultimate goal is to create custom-made bone.

Bernards explained that bone is composed of two materials: collagen, a structural protein, and hydroxyapatite, the mineral structural element. He and chemical engineering graduate student Kevin Zurick are conducting a systematic study of the major noncollagenous proteins found in bones and teeth for their abilities to bind collagen and hydroxyapatite.

“Proteins have been shown to facilitate bone formation, so we are looking at which of the small integrin-binding ligand, N-linked glycoproteins (SIBLING) is most conducive,” said Zurick.

Microscopic images of collagen.

At left, pre-treated collagen. At right, mineralized collagen after five hours of immersion in a mineralization solution with the researchers’ most promising mineralizing protein. Photos were taken with an atomic force microscope.

The pair identified three SIBLING proteins they felt had merit as they are the most prevalent non-collagenous proteins in bones and teeth. The testing process involves quantifying the ability of each to form minerals on collagen-coated substrates and to induce collagen fibril formation, both of which occur naturally during reparative processes within the body

“If we can successfully replicate these reactions, we could recreate the mechanical properties of bone in a biomimetic fashion,” Bernards said.

Zurick sees the potential to produce biocompatible bone tissue in a “big block” that could be cut to precisely replace damaged bone.

“The scaffold, or medium, must have qualities of what you intend to replicate. Cells will grow into it based on physical and chemical cues and differentiate accordingly because the native binding was replicated. And the immune response would be negligible,” he said. “You could take an X-ray and not be able to tell it had been replaced.”

Bernards said he believes that he and Zurick have identified the most promising of the mineral inducers, and they continue to work on identifying the best fibril inducer.

“Hopefully, it’s the same one,” Zurick said.