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New Materials for Reconstructive Surgery Make It Easier To Detect Damage

A surgeon holds a breast implant towards the camera.
Credit: Philippe Spitalier / Unsplash.
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Researchers have developed an improved version of the gelatin-based materials used in plastic and reconstructive surgeries. The new material is 3D-printable and, unlike previous generations of gelatin implants, can be easily detected using an X-ray machine or computed tomography (CT) scanner.

The material, described in a new publication in ACS Applied Engineering Materials, could help medical teams to better track the natural breakdown of implants in the body and quicky identify any unusual damage or other issues.

Developing materials for plastic surgery

Gelatin-based materials are a popular option for reconstructive and plastic surgery teams. These materials are relatively straightforward to produce, while still having all the necessary qualities needed for the patient – they are non-toxic, inexpensive and biodegradable.

Crucially, gelatin-based implants also promote natural cell growth. This means that a reconstructive surgeon can insert an implant into a wound and over time the body will naturally begin to break down the implant and replace it with its own healthy tissue. Many of these materials are also 3D-printable, meaning a surgeon can create an implant with whatever shape that individual patient might need.

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Thanks to this ability to speed up wound healing and remold tissues, these kinds of implant are very popular. However, they come with one major hurdle – it is very hard to study these materials as they break down using conventional imaging.

Improving the tracking of implants

The new gelatin-based material, developed by researchers at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences (IOCB Prague) and Ghent University, is a hydrogel material that also incorporates a bio-compatible radiopaque compound. This combination makes the overall shape of the implant extremely obvious in imaging scans.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan images of a rat’s waist, with a traditional implant site indicated by the white arrow and new (fluorinated) implant site indicated by the red arrow. The location and shape of the new implant is clearly visible in fluorine-19 MRI, and combination hydrogen-1 and fluorine-19 MRI. Credit: IOCB Prague.

This new, more visible, type of implant could make it easier for surgical teams and follow-up health providers to trace how quickly implants are degrading over time, as well as detecting any instances of damage.

“A whole series of academic papers is being written on this topic,” said study author Ondřej Groborz, a student at IOCB Prague. “The first of them introduces a gelatin-based material that can be monitored using magnetic resonance imaging. In our second article, recently published in Applied Engineering Materials, we endow the materials with X-ray and CT detectability.”

It is important that healthcare providers are able to monitor these materials, the researchers explain, as tissues in the human body grow at different rates. Depending on this rate, the properties of an implant may need to be adapted. Materials that enhance monitoring will also help researchers to better observe how these implants biodegrade and what behaviors could indicate a rupture or other mechanical failure.

Reference: Groborz O, Kolouchova K, Parmentier L, et al. Photoprintable radiopaque hydrogels for regenerative medicine. ACS Appl Eng Mater. 2024. doi: 10.1021/acsaenm.3c00533

This article is a rework of a press release issued by IOCB Prague. Material has been edited for length and content.