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Silk-Based Surgical Implants an Orthopedic Innovation

silkscrewThe latest silk-inspired innovation from the lab of biomedical engineering Professor David Kaplan is receiving media attention: silk-protein surgical screws that could transform the way we heal broken bones. Researchers from Kaplan’s lab and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center published their findings in the journal Nature Communications this March.

Surgical screws and plates, or “fixation devices” are used to repair fractured bones and are often made of metal alloys or synthetic polymers. However, metal implants place undue stress on the bone, are prone to infection, and must be surgically removed from the body once a fracture has healed. Synthetic screws are designed to be absorbed by the body, but they can be difficult to set and may cause inflammation.

The research team manufactured plates and screws from the silk protein produced by the Bombyx mori (B. mori) silkworm cocoons. A silk solution was cured into molds that produced easily machinable plates and screws. The silk screws are self-tapping, an improvement from conventional resorbable screws that require careful drilling of a screw hole before insertion of the hardware. In vivo tests showed the screws remain fixed in the bone at four and eight weeks with notable improvements in the healing and resorbtion process.

Professor Kaplan told BBC News: “The future is very exciting. We envision a whole set of orthopaedic devices for repair based on this – from plates and screws to almost any kind of device you can think of where you don’t want hardware left in the body.”

Some added benefits to the silk technology over metal fixation devices include decreased sensitivity to the cold and zero interference with X-ray technology or metal detectors. “One of the other big advantages of silk is that it can stabilize and deliver bioactive components, so that plates and screws made of silk could actually deliver antibiotics to prevent infection, pharmaceuticals to enhance bone regrowth and other therapeutics to support healing,” says Kaplan.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (EB002520).

More coverage on this story: TuftsNow, New Scientist, The Telegraph, and Popular Science


Tufts University Alumni Association 2014 Senior Award Honorees

Each year, the Tufts University Alumni Association (TUAA) recognizes members of the senior class for academic achievement, participation in campus and community activities, and leadership. Twelve students are chosen from a pool of nominees for the TUAA Senior Award. This year’s cohort of Senior Award Honorees includes two engineering students: Briana Bouchard and Laura Burns.

Briana BouchardBriana Bouchard will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. Bouchard served as Corporate Relations Chair and Publicity Chair for Tufts Society for Women Engineers, Tufts Admissions Tour Guide and Engineering Panelist, Senior Representative and Academic Chair for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Residential Assistant for Tufts University Office of Residential Life. As a researcher, she designed a medical device to assist in the insertion of IV catheters in babies and children, was part of a team that designed an award winning audio speaker, and has researched the use of silk for breast implants for women who have had mastectomies.


Laura BurnsLaura Burns will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering. At Tufts, Burns was a Stern Family Scholar, was on the Dean’s List all semesters, a member of Tau Beta Pi (Engineering National Honor Society), President and Board Member of the Tufts University Engineering Student Council, Secretary and Board Member for Tufts University Society for Women Engineers, Captain of the Varsity Swim Team, and a volunteer at Tufts University Admissions Office. Burns was a research assistant in Assistant Professor Lauren Black’s Lab, where she worked with tissue engineering of cardiac tissue and design of an optical device to measure the thickness of delicate tissues.