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Researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibers that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.

A 3D rendering of a novel bone-fixing composite. (Credit: Bryant Heimbach/UConn)

A materials scientist and biomedical engineer turned to spiders and moths for inspiration. In particular, he focused on silk fibroin, a protein found in the silk fibers spun by spiders and moths known for its toughness and tensile strength. Silk fibroin is a common component in medical sutures and tissue engineering because of its strength and biodegradability.

The new composite consists of long silk fibers and fibers of polylactic acid — a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from cornstarch and sugar cane — that are dipped in a solution in which each is coated with fine bioceramic particles made of hydroxyapatite (the calcium phosphate mineral found in teeth and bones). The coated fibers are then packed in layers on a small steel frame and pressed into a dense composite bar in a hot compression mold.

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