There are a lot of different kinds of scaffolds to choose from, ranging from ceramic and metals to cellulose hydrogels. So what makes hybrid aerogels any better than other scaffolds? For one, they are half made of proteins (that’s the “hybrid” bit), which are eventually broken down by the body. The other half, silica, slowly melts away as orthosilicic acid, which is known to hasten wound healing. Their pore size can be controlled during the manufacturing process, making it easy to adapt them to different uses. They are also being tested as drug delivery systems, meaning that the material could be spiked with medicines or growth factors before using it as a scaffold.
Earlier this year, three research labs based out of Iran, Germany, and Austria got together and decided to fuse a very strong protein with a very light and porous aerogel. The very strong protein is silk fibroin, the stuff found in silkworm cocoons and used to make fancy fabrics. It makes the aerogel strong and just stiff enough to use for bone growth. With the raw materials ready, the scientists started with Phase I: make the hybrid aerogel. Throw a source of silica, silk fibroin, some acid and a touch of detergent into a pot. Bake for an hour and voilà! You have yourself a silica-silk fibroin hybrid aerogel.
Having made the material, they now moved to Phase II: check if the hybrid aerogels are in any way harmful to human cells. In fact, the cells seemed to really like the material. When the hybrid aerogel was placed in a dish containing bone cells, they readily grew on its surface, depositing the proteins and minerals required for bone growth along the way.
On to Phase III: implant the hybrid aerogel in mice and check if it stimulates bone regeneration. The researchers made small bone injuries in two groups of mice and implanted the hybrid aerogel in one of them. After 25 days, they saw that the mice with the implants showed faster and better healing than the mice without implants. The aerogel was not just allowing new bone to grow, but also making it grow faster than normal.
This ability of the hybrid aerogel to speed up bone regeneration places it on the forefront of new therapeutic technologies. Imagine having bone fractures healing in a span of days, as opposed to weeks. Or being able to tell a bone cancer patient that, “Yes, you have to cut out a section of their leg but it can be easily grown back, no worries.” Hybrid aerogels are possibly the biomaterial that could make such conversations a reality.