Over the past several years, a number of research institutes have been exploring the use of implants made from material with a scaffolding-like structure, as a means of regrowing bone at severe injury sites. Both MIT and Tufts University, for instance, have been working on collagen-based materials. Now, England’s University of Southampton has announced the development of a new type of bone-growing substance, made from plastic.

The Southampton material is inserted into broken bones, its honeycomb-shaped internal matrix allowing blood to flow through. Stem cells from the adjacent bone marrow will also make their way in, some of them attaching themselves to the material. Those cells will become bone cells, gradually accumulating and replacing the biodegradable plastic until nothing is left but newly-grown bone.

It’s the same principle by which the collagen-based materials work.

Co-led by Prof. Richard Oreffo, the research team used a new technique to mix and analyze hundreds of combinations of plastics. The final blend they chose, which consists of three non-toxic plastics, is reportedly light, robust, and has a surface that is able to support bone stem cell growth. The material has been tested on animals, with human trials now planned.

Scotland’s University of Edinburgh partnered with Southampton on the study, which took seven years. A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

If the material does indeed prove effective in humans, it could perhaps even be used to create customized 3D-printed bone scaffolds, as pioneered by Washington State University.