Friday, January 08, 2010

The Wooden Leg Makes a Comeback

Pirate enthusiasts rejoice. Wooden legs are back.

Sort of.

Actually, anyone who has lost bone or bone density to disease or accident may have something to celebrate, and will not actually have to worry about looking like a pirate.

Scientists in Italy, at the Istec laboratory of bioceramics in Faenza near Bologna, have found that the wood of the rattan tree, when heated, pressurized and enhanced with calcium and phosphates, becomes incredibly similar to human bone. Early tests show that real bone is so comfortable with the organic substitute, that it will bind to it (this is with segments of bone - no tests in humans have taken place yet). This acceptance by real bone, coupled with the treated rattan wood's natural durability, means the substitute bone will never need replacing.

Current substitutes for people who have suffered bone loss due to disease, where the remaining bone is also weak, often need to be replaced, and certainly don't fuse with the real bone. The BBC quoted surgeon Maurillo Marcacci, who is testing the bone substitute in sheep, as saying, "A strong, durable, load-bearing bone is really the holy grail for surgeons like me and for patients." (The treated rattan wood shown left.)

It could be another five years before the bone substitute is ready for use in humans. Smart planet also has a neat story about this, and here is a neat video of the discovery from the BBC.

It's always interesting when the advance of science goes back to it's roots (no pun intended) and finds inspiration in nature. It's even more amazing to find raw materials. Mother nature is very good at what she does. She's had millions of years to develop some of her creations, and natural selection has helped preserve the best and most efficient.

I'm reminded of scientists in recent years finding that many arthropods (including crabs and spiders) have single-atom deposits of metal in the very tips of their fangs or claws. These unique structures are incredibly fracture resistant and durable, which is good, because the animals use them to come in contact with the rest of the world, such as when walking or attacking. While the building structure of these tips wouldn't work for large scale structures, they could teach engineers how to better build nanostructures.

I'm also reminded of how some doctors in the last ten years have returned to using maggots to remove infection. For a long time, these methods were viewed as an ancient and unnecessary with modern antiseptics. But infection can still kill people, even when they have access to good health care. Patients suffering from diabetes, which can lead to open sores particularly on the feet, still suffer from gangrene if the sores become infected and the infection isn't caught soon enough. Apparently, even when doctors believe they have removed all of an infection with more modern methods, small amounts can remain. And that's all it takes. Maggots, however, are apparently very thorough when it comes to eating up infected tissue, and in fact, will leave healthy tissue alone.

In addition, leeches are back in vogue as a way to treat circulation problems that may occur after reconstructive surgery. The squirmy little critters promote circulation and release a blood thinning agent that prevents coagulation. Read all about it in this fantastic article by Ben Harder called Creepy-Crawly Care.

It's important to note that taking a cue from nature, and respecting what it has to offer, isn't the same as abandoning science. The two are tightly linked, and I'm afraid I've run into many people who believe they are separate. They see scientists and doctors as old, white, balding men in lab coats who don't listen to their patients, or ignore new ideas. And while I think that image should have faded long ago, some people still assume modern medicine is separate from nature because it relies so heavily on technology and man-made drugs. I think the above examples demonstrate how modern scientists have in no way left nature behind. But it's also important to separate the use of naturally occurring materials in modern medicine, as the same thing as "alternative medicine."

Alternative medicine took a big hit a few weeks ago when an extensive study by the University of Virginia School of Medicine found that ginkgo biloba does not improve memory or prevent cognitive decline in aging test subjects. The problem with many alternative medicines is that they've never been subject to this kind of study. The problem with many others is that they have, and been found to be ineffective, and people still use them with the belief that they will have an effect.

But it's important to keep in mind a point that Bad Astronomy blogger and all around awesome guy Phil Plait brought up when reporting this story: that the researchers were disappointed to find that ginkgo did nothing. Scientists aren't (or they shouldn't be) automatically against natural remedies. If something helps people feel better and get better, then doctors are happy. But while anecdotal evidence may be enough to convince some people to use an untested or ineffective treatment for ailments which are long term and often cannot be contributed to any one cause, this isn't enough to satisfy a good doctor. Whenever anyone tries to convince me that an alternative therapy is effective, or even better than modern medicine, I pose this question: while you might take herbs for mild mood enhancement or better digestion, or wear crystals for back pain, if your child went to the hospital for Anaphylactic shock and was suffocating, would you want take your chances with something that you only know works because of stories you've heard, or epinephrine?

The point is, when faced with more urgent care needs, modern medicine wins out.

I bring this up because I think it's important not to hit either extreme. Have you ever met anyone who swore that scientists and doctors didn't know anything? Or someone who believed there were no mysteries left to be found in nature? Once again, there were many folks who didn't think leeches or maggots were useful once we got antiseptics. On the flip side, modern medicine is advancing treatment for Alzheimer's and dementia at a rate that no purely natural remedy has been show to do. I think the problem is not science or nature, but humans. Whatever system we use to find answers, we are always subject to our own imperfections.

Ok, maybe I brought that up so I could post this:

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