Why you should care
Because everyone wants broken bones fixed fast.
Maybe your timing on that mountain-bike jump was a little off, or the carpet at the top of the stairs was worn just enough to catch your toe. Whatever it was, ass over teakettle you went, and now you’ve got a stainless steel rod in your collarbone and a titanium plate screwed onto a bone in your forearm. Once everything’s knitted back up, your doctor may want to take out the extra hardware. Two surgeries for the price of one fall. Fun!
Sandra Cifuentes wants to spare you that extra trip to the operating room, not to mention the additional expense, pain and recovery time involved. She’s not a doctor, just a young Colombian chemical engineer at Spain’s National Center for Metallurgical Research who’s developed a sturdy new material for surgical implants. Build plates and screws out of this stuff and — in theory, at least — they’ll not only brace your fractures but also stimulate your bones to regenerate naturally. And then, the really good part: Over time, these implants will dissolve entirely. Your surgeon might be disappointed, but you’ll be free to jump back on that bike (or replace that carpet).
“I’m just offering a simple improvement to existing implants, with more immediate application,” Cifuentes says with characteristic modesty. The 28-year-old scientist exudes a shy kind of nerd cool; she wears stylish glasses, keeps her brunette hair short and straight, and speaks softly with plenty of pauses as she considers her words.
Cifuentes’ work, which has won her international recognition and job offers in the U.S. and Germany, could be a big step forward in the world of orthopedic implants, where new materials are badly needed. Metals like titanium and stainless steel are strong, but sometimes they corrode, leading to pain and possible bone damage. Bioplastic implants made with polylactic acid will dissolve over time, but they won’t bear much weight and don’t foster bone regeneration. And while doctors have long experimented with magnesium alloys and other “biometals” that the body can resorb, they’re still a work in progress.
A better type of trauma implant would enter a major market for orthopedic devices, which keeps growing as the world’s elderly population expands. Annual sales are expected to reach $38 billion this year, up from $35.5 billion in 2013, according to a report by Harris Williams & Co. Among other things, sturdy and resorbable implants could save millions in annual health-care expenses from suddenly unnecessary implant-removal surgeries.
Like the bones she works with, Cifuentes has found her life unexpectedly broken and reset several times. Her father, a veterinarian, worked away from home much of the time during her childhood; the rest of her family lived with her grandmother to save money. Cifuentes graduated at the top of her class in high school, then landed a scholarship to Colombia’s best university, where she had to study chemistry because the school didn’t offer courses in bioengineering. In 2008, yet another scholarship whirled her off to finish her last year in Germany.
Cifuentes recalls marveling at the 3-D printer in her lab at Erlangen-Nürnberg University; it was antiquated, but still the best one she’d ever seen. But life wasn’t always easy for a female scientist from a developing country; Cifuentes often felt condescended to, and sometimes struggled to be taken seriously. (Not a unique experience for women in science, even in the U.S.) On the other hand, she was actually able to work with bone implants, bringing her back to biomedicine. Then, while on vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland, she met a dashing Spaniard. Before long, they were married and Cifuentes was moving to a new job in Spain at the metallurgical institute, on a schedule so tight she couldn’t even pick up her university diploma. She had to send her twin sister as her body double.
Six years later, Cifuentes — doctorate in hand — is raising a 2-year-old and pondering her future. Her new material is basically a uniform, stable composite that combines bioplastic with magnesium alloys and other metals. The mixture resorbs gracefully, is stronger than the plastic alone and slows down magnesium corrosion. Last year, MIT Technology Review named her one of Spain’s “Innovators Under 35” for her work, which has so far resulted in almost a half-dozen scientific papers in specialized journals. “Sandra is a real entrepreneur,” says Jose Luis González, director of the metallurgical institute. “She’s smart, relates great with others, learns quickly and immediately takes the reins,” which he says is unique considering her age.
There’s one big caveat: Cifuentes’ new biomaterial has only been tested in the lab. Her contract ends in December and there is no funding at this point for animal testing, much less years more of possible human trials. Other laboratories are also in hot pursuit of alternative bioimplant material. “Biodegradable metals — magnesium alloys — just offer more advantages than other biodegradable materials” like the one Cifuentes is working on, says Frank Witte, principal investigator of bioactive implants at Germany’s Charité — Universitätsmedizin Berlin and one of the world’s leading experts on bone implants.
Cifuentes acknowledges that her bioplastic-based implants will have limitations, but it’s not a zero-sum game. In the wild world of bones, there is enough space for all types of biodegradable materials, each offering different advantages and shortcomings. González says Cifuentes has received offers from the U.S. and Germany, but hasn’t yet made any decisions. Cifuentes says she’s still figuring out her next move. Her university friend Diana Gomez, however, sees a Nobel Prize in Cifuentes’ future. “I call her Superwoman, but she doesn’t even realize how important her work is,” Gomez says. “She will find the right people, maybe in the U.S. It’s just a question of time, and a bit of luck.”