Robotic implants directly monitor the bone

Heal broken bones with AI
Robotic implants directly monitor the bone

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It is not obvious that bones regrow purely after fractures. Tailored implants should ensure optimal healing with the support of artificial intelligence. And warn of incorrect loads.

Robotic implants: Professor Bergita Ganse (left) conducting experiments in the laboratory. The trauma surgeon is coordinating the ‘Smart Implants’ project at the University of Saarland.

(Photo: Saar University)

Each fracture of the lower leg is different. Depending on the forces acting on the bone, the pattern of damage varies from large fragments to small fragments of bone. A common treatment is to screw a standard size implant onto pieces of bone; however, current implants are purely passive. X-rays only show healing progress at intervals and with a delay.

‘The fact that bone does not grow together despite being implanted is a relatively common complication of a tibia fracture,’ says Professor Bergita Ganse, who is coordinating the ‘Smart Implants’ project at the University of Saarland. In an interdisciplinary team, doctors, engineers and computer scientists develop an implant that is individually tailored to the patient’s bone and which, directly in place in the body after surgery, provides information on how well or poorly a fracture heals and can alert you to incorrect loading.

Materials Science, Artificial Intelligence and Medicine

If necessary, the implant itself should actively support bone healing. To this end, scientists combine materials technology, artificial intelligence and medical knowledge. “Thanks to implants, we want to constantly monitor the fracture stiffness and the fracture displacement directly at the fracture site. If problems arise, the implant itself should take active countermeasures through movement or stiffening. Interventions are not necessary, ”explains Ganse.

“We have to clear up various intricate details and connections.” What forces, frequencies, force directions, duration and periods or other stimuli an implant should ideally deliver are not specified yet. One of the fundamental new developments is the use of shape memory wires in the implant. At the right moment, they should take over the appropriate “physical therapy”. This requires a large amount of data and information.

Hair-thin shape memory wires

The hair-thin shape memory wires are made of nickel and titanium. Intelligent material systems specialists, led by Professor Stefan Seelecke, are researching this at the University of Saarland. The cables installed in the implant use electrical signals to visualize the healing process as a sensor and stimulate healing through movement.

Shape memory wires return to their original shape when deformed or pulled, and can contract and relax just like muscles. They achieve high traction in a small space; they have the highest energy density of any known propulsion mechanism. They are powered by electricity.

Algorithms calculate motion sequences

Each cable length can be assigned an exact measured electrical resistance value. If the wires are installed in the implant, even the smallest changes in the fracture gap can be read from the measured values. This turns these artificial muscles into sensors in the implant.

At the same time, the sequence of such measured values ​​corresponds to the sequence of the movement. With the help of number columns and intelligent algorithms, the motion sequences can be calculated, programmed and controlled in advance. In this way, the implant could easily move directly into the fracture fracture and stimulate healing by actively shortening and lengthening, emitting pulses, waves or electromagnetic fields.

Scientists are currently working on minor adjustments and details to make these muscles fit for use in an implant.

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