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Rattan, a spiny palm with barbed leaves that grows like a vine and found mainly in South-East Asia, South Asia and West African forests, could be the source of next-generation bone implants, with the first products planned for release in 2019.

Italian firm GreenBone announced last month that clinical trials on sheep prove that its technology works. It found that rattan can be used to build a scaffold to support damaged bones by turning rattan into a material with the same strength, flexibility and porosity as bones.

“Rattan is totally biocompatible and absorbable, and structurally organised like natural bone... it induces bone regeneration.”

Anna Tampieri, GreenBone

The chemical process that turns rattan into a bone-like material was developed by a team at the Institute of Science and Technology for Ceramics (Istec) of the Italian National Research Council. Through this process, plant materials such as lignin and cellulose are removed from pieces of rattan wood, which are then treated to create hydroxyapatite, the same mineral that makes up human bones.

“The advantages offered by rattan-derived bone-like material over other bone substitutes like ceramics, polymers and titanium are great,” says Anna Tampieri, a researcher with the Istec project and chief scientist at GreenBone “Unlike these solutions, rattan is totally biocompatible and absorbable, and structurally organised like natural bone. We also already had evidence that it induces bone regeneration. With time, it will completely fuse with the real bone.”

Bone replacement is crucial for treating various conditions when bones cannot self-repair. These include severe breaks, bone cancer and degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis.

Rattan bones could be especially important for replacing large chunks of bone — three centimetres or more — for which existing bone substitutes are unsuitable, the team found. In time, rattan grafts are replaced with newly formed bone without needing further surgery, making it a cheaper and less-invasive choice for long-term treatment, the researchers say.

Pilot studies by Tampieri’s team showed evidence of full integration with real bone and no signs of rattan bones being rejected or leading to infection. “We will soon extend our observations to a larger group of sheep, before conducting a clinical trial in about 20-30 patients,” Tampieri says. “We expect to have final results by mid-2018.”

GreenBone is producing a development plan for the new technology, based on the Calamus rotang species of rattan palm, which is grown in southern India and Sri Lanka. The company aims to bring rattan bones to the market by the beginning of 2019.

Rattan is valuable in many developing countries. Because of the strength, lightness and versatility of its stems, rattan is widely used in furniture and handicraft industries. However, overharvesting of rattan poles and the continued destruction of dipterocarp forests, the natural habitat of rattan, have resulted to massive drop in rattan yield for some countries like the Philippines. There are fears that the discovery of its latest use could cause further overexploitation of rattan and damage to the forest ecosystem where it grows.

Thibault Ledecq, the regional forest coordinator of conservation charity WWF’s Greater Mekong Programme in South-East Asia, says he doubts this new medical use of rattan will prove harmful. “For me, this is demonstrating once more how rattan is an amazing species, and it provides one more reason to conserve it and to conserve the forest,” he says.

This article was produced by SciDev.Net's Global Edition.

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