Dear Oscar,

A couple months before you were born, your skeleton was soft and bendy. It was made out of cartilage, the same material that’s in your nose and ears now. But when certain cells in your body called osteoblasts and osteoclasts began to work together, new bone started to form.

In fact, you were born with about 300 tiny bones in your body. As you began to grow, some of the bones fused together and became single bones. Now, you carry around a skeleton of 206 bones.

Those bones are pretty strong, too. They are mostly made up of the same minerals that keep your teeth strong and a tiger’s claw sharp: calcium phosphate. They also contain some proteins, vitamins, water, and other elements.

That’s what I found out from my friend Susmita Bose. She’s a materials engineer here at Washington State University and knows a lot about the science of our bones.

Science in your bones! Susmita Bose and the biomechanical 3-D printing she and her graduate students are researching.
The science of your bones! Susmita Bose and the biomechanical 3-D printing she and her graduate students are researching. Image courtesy WSU Photo Services.

As strong as our bones may be, they are actually breaking down all the time, she said.

“There is always a micro-crack that is generating in our musculoskeletal system,” Bose said. “Bone keeps repairing itself throughout our life.”

We have two main types of bone cells. There are the bone-eating cells called osteoclasts and the bone-building cells called osteoblasts. They work in a cycle. Since the day you were born, your skeleton system has been, in a way, always re-making itself.

Still, sometimes our bones do more than just micro-crack. Even when we do our best to keep our skeletal system healthy, bones sometimes break. As we get older, the bone-building cells start to slow down. Some bones can become so damaged that a person might need to replace them.

In the lab, Bose and her team use a special form of calcium phosphate to make custom bone replacement parts. These are called implants. It takes a group of smart scientists who know a lot about chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine to make the implants work.

“You can make a special X-ray scan of the bone defect, then send a file of the information through a computer, and the 3-D printer will make the part based on your file,” Bose said.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.05.13 AMShe showed me a few of the bone replacement parts from the printer. They looked and felt a lot like the bones you’d find in the human body.

“I often say it isn’t easy to mimic Mother Nature,” Bose said. But using a variety of sciences, she said the team is getting closer to building bone materials that improve the way people heal.

They design implants that are friendly to the rest of the body and that get along with the different bone cells and other cells, so the growing cycle can continue.

Maybe someday if you break your arm in football or hurt your ankle in soccer, your doctor could pop in a specially made implant. Perhaps you would even be able to join your team again before the season ends.


Dr. Universe

Got a science question? E-mail Dr. Wendy Sue Universe at Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University.