Rattan wood bone implants near human trials

An x-ray of the broken finger
Copyright: G.M.B. Akash/Panos

Speed read

  • Rattan can be made into bone-like material that real bone slowly replaces
  • It is a vital forest resource for many developing nations
  • Italian firm hopes to bring rattan bones to market by early 2019

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Rattan wood — the stems of a climbing palm that grows in South-East Asian 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 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 a valuable natural resource in many developing countries, but there are fears that growing demand could cause overexploitation and damage to the forest ecosystems where rattan grows.

However, 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.