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Bioengineer to study skull fusion in infants

By Clifton B. Parker on May 22, 2009 in University News

With $300,000 in support from a foundation that champions cutting-edge medical research, a biomedical engineer at UC Davis will start work this month on developing a new treatment for infants born with disorders that cause the sutures of their skulls to prematurely fuse together.

The new approach is based on creating a synthetic bone matrix that is biodegradable and bio-absorbable. If successful, it could also lead to advances in treating various problematic bone fractures in adults, such as those caused by osteoporosis.

Kent Leach, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is the first UC Davis faculty member to receive a grant from The Hartwell Foundation, an organization that supports biomedical research projects with the potential for benefiting children.

Surgery is the standard treatment for infants diagnosed with craniosynostosis, the generic name for a group of disorders that result in the premature fusing of one or more of the sutures necessary for the skull to expand as the child’s brain grows. If left untreated, the disorder can cause abnormal head shape and brain damage.

In a standard operation, surgeons remove swaths of fused bone, break them into segments then reposition a portion of them along the sutures to protect the exposed brain. The hope is that by removing some bone and rearranging the rest, growth will be slowed long enough to allow the brain to reach full size.

But in 6 to 8 percent of cases, a second operation is necessary, and in 25 percent of those cases, even a third operation will be required, with the risk of complications climbing with each ensuing operation.

“Our hope is that we can eliminate secondary surgeries,” he said.

With the funding from The Hartwell Foundation, Leach intends to engineer a porous, biodegradable material with the mechanical properties of bone that can be placed along the sutures as a substitute for the fragmented skull bones. His goal for the three-year term of the grant is to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach in laboratory rats.
 

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, cparker@ucdavis.edu

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