Metro

Lowell company develops bone glue being tested on International Space Station

Astronaut Joe Acaba, who’s leading the tests on the International Space Station, worked with a tissue culture in a glove box.
NASA
Astronaut Joe Acaba, who’s leading the tests on the International Space Station, worked with a tissue culture in a glove box.

A Lowell-based startup has developed an injectable glue that can be used to repair fractured bones, and it’s currently in orbit being tested on the International Space Station.

The bone glue, a biomaterial called Tetranite developed by the company LaunchPad Medical, is intended to supplement tools like metal plates and screws in orthopedic surgeries, said Brian Hess, the company’s founder and chief executive.

“With our glue, we can make a smaller incision, inject the biomaterial in, [and] solidify and bond the broken bones back together,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday.

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The glue, made of calcium and amino acids, also facilitates new bone growth and is safely reabsorbed into the body over time, Hess said.

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Researchers have been working to create an effective bone glue for years but have run into several roadblocks along the way.

“The idea of a bone glue is not novel,” he said. “The problem is that you have to have a glue that has immediate load bearing strength in a wet environment.” It also has to be biocompatible and have a low production cost.

One of the primary uses for a glue that’s not only safe to inject into the body but also conducive to bone growth and regeneration is that it can be used to treat people with osteoporosis.

“Trying to repair patients that fall and fracture their bones because they have osteoporosis is very challenging,” said Hess, who’s worked with surgeons in operating rooms to observe obstacles firsthand.

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By testing the product in space, researchers can simulate osteoporosis on bone-growing cells called osteoblasts because of microgravity, Hess said, which causes astronauts to lose up to 2 percent of their bone mass per month.

The tests will go on for 20 days, NASA said, allowing bone cell cultures to grow using the glue. The cells will then be frozen and returned to Earth to be analyzed in a fully equipped lab.

If the results are promising, the company will write a proposal for NASA to run the tests, funded by aerospace company Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space through the MassChallenge startup program, in the space station’s rodent research facility, Hess said.

Eventually, they hope to use it for bone repair, dental surgery, veterinary surgery, and even as a life-saving tool for wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

“Whether you’re healthy . . . versus if you have osteoporosis and you fell, we’re trying to treat all patients,” he said.

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.