Resulting from bone-breaks, deep puncture wounds, severe tooth decay or other causes, osteomyelitis is a bone infection that in serious cases may lead to amputations or even death. It's also notoriously difficult to treat, although a newly-developed implant could help change that.

Typical osteomyelitis treatments include weeks of high-dose antibiotic therapy, surgical removal of the infected bone, and sometimes bone grafting. Even then, the failure rate of such treatments can be as high as 30 percent.

With that in mind, scientists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) have created an implant that could be surgically placed at the infection site. There, it would simultaneously kill bacteria, improve blood flow, and promote new bone growth – little if any antibiotics would be required.

The device (white object in photo above, on a chicken embryo) is made from a combination of collagen and an existing bone-repair material known as bioactive glass, which in this case is doped with copper particles. It has a porous scaffold-like microstructure, which serves to both attract blood vessels and to serve as a sort of "roost" that bone cells can migrate onto, ultimately forming healthy solid bone.

The copper ions, meanwhile, eradicate infection-causing bacteria. In lab tests conducted so far, the implant has reduced Staphylococcus aureus populations by up to 66 percent, while also causing a 3.6-fold increase in bone development.

"Further work on the back of this research could lead to the complete development of a single-stage, off-the-shelf treatment," says PhD student Emily Ryan, first author of a paper on the research. "This in turn could reduce the need for antibiotics and bone grafting – thus also addressing issues with antibiotic resistance."

The paper was recently published in the journal Biomaterials.

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