2012: Coralline Ceramics

AWARDEES: Jon Weber, Eugene White, Rodney White and Della Roy

SCIENCE: Bone Grafts from Coral

FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCY: National Institutes of Health

In a serendipitous merging of research interests that began in the 1960s, four scientists in different fields came up with an ideal bone graft material from an unlikely source: the coral found in tropical oceans.  Support for this research came from the National Institutes of Health.

None of the scientists had set out to find a bone graft material. In fact, the process began when Jon Weber (deceased), a marine geologist at Penn State University (PSU) was studying the chemical composition of coral that he had collected in the South Pacific.

When Weber found out that Eugene White was using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) in Penn State’s Material Research Lab, Weber asked White if he could examine the marine animals’ skeletons using the microscope.

White, a scuba diver who had become interested in coral while diving, was excited to view micrographs of Weber’s samples. Having already examined nearly every man-made material using SEM, White found a whole new range of three-dimensional architecture in the coral skeletons. The pores of the coral were uniform and interconnected. Without any particular application in mind, White made molds of the coral in ceramic, polymers, and metals.

In the summer of 1971, medical student Rodney White, Eugene White’s nephew, compared the structure of the coral to the porous ceramics and metals that were being developed for bone grafts. In fact, the coral’s structure was ideal for allowing blood vessels to grow into an implant made with the coral, promoting the growth of new bone.

As it turned out, the coral itself could not be used as the bone graft material because it was made of calcium carbonate, which broke down in the body before new bone could grow on it. Another scientist, Della Roy, also at PSU, solved that problem by developing a method to substitute for the calcium carbonate while retaining the coral’s microstructure. Roy used hydroxyapatite, a mineral complex in bones and teeth.

Today, coralline bone grafts, which are compatible with the human body and cause no negative immune reaction, are widely used to treat bone injury and deformity.  Their development demonstrates the often serendipitous nature of science and the nonlinear nature of creativity and innovation.