One in every 2,000 infants is born with skull abnormalities that can lead to sutures in their skulls fusing together prematurely. UC Davis researcher Kent Leach received a $300,000 grant from the Hartwell Foundation to work on creating a synthetic bone matrix that could facilitate corrective surgery.
The occurrence of skull fusion could mean an abnormally shaped head or brain damage.
“If the suture is closed prematurely before the brain growth has completed a strain is put and skull is distorted in a direction perpendicular to the suture,” said Simeon Boyd, associate professor of pediatrics at the UC Davis Medical Center who is not involved in the study. According to Boyd, the causes of craniosynostosis, the scientific name for this disease, have not yet been identified.
In traditional corrective surgery, removing the fused bone slows the bone formation too much. But with the new approach of creating a synthetic bone matrix, it is possible to sustain growth at a normal rate after surgery.
“By presenting an engineered biomaterial to the edge of mineralizing skull sutures, we can slow the rate of bone formation to a normal rate, thus allowing for normal suture fusion to occur,” said Leach, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis.
Leach, along with the help of his lab, believes it is the environment that produces the abnormal growth and not the cells themselves.
“We are using bone-forming cells (osteoblasts) collected from infants diagnosed with this disease to determine if differences exist between the natural cell-secreted extracellular matrix (ECM) produced by cells from affected patients and normal patients,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Our next step is to use engineered biomaterials and control the local microenvironment to determine if we can alter this ECM. Lastly, we will assess if this engineered ECM can slow down the rate of bone formation by osteoblasts from affected patients.“
Leach hopes to use this technique along with the money provided by the grant to reduce the need for a second surgery and a higher chance of survival by avoiding an invasive surgery.
“This approach may reduce or eliminate secondary surgeries that are required in up to 8 percent of affected patients,” Leach said. “These secondary surgeries carry extensive additional risk such as infection, seizures and even death.“
Boyd said there are often other abnormalities at play in infants with premature skull fusion.
“Fifteen percent of the newborns have other congenial anomalies which are usually due to a mutation in a single gene, but the common 85 percent do not follow single-gene mutations and are called multifactorial,” Boyd said.
The Hartwell Foundation specializes in offering grants to fund biomedical research projects that help benefit children. It is noted for funding research in its preliminary stages that has not yet received support from traditional sources.
SADAF MOGHIMI can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.