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Mending the brain's walls

Professor Malcolm Cooke uses the mold  of a skull to explain research to repair cranial defects.
Professor Malcolm Cooke uses
the mold of a skull to
explain research to repair cranial defects
The College of Engineering began a three-year project this fall aimed at regenerating cranial bone.

Under a $300,000 grant by the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, this project is based on a need for cranial repair, said Malcolm Cooke, professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator.

Trauma from a variety of accidents, congenital birth defects and cranial ressection for treating brain tumors and cancer are among the causes of bone loss.

Cooke, whose work is based on design, manufacturing and tissue engineering said that cranial defects can also come from current combat zones.

"We have a lot of military personnel returning from Iraq with serious head injuries" Cooke said.

Traditionally, the materials used for cranial repair are inert, meaning they do not adapt to patient's bone structure and cannot adapt to cranial growth, especially infants and adolescent, because they are made of materials such as polymers and titanium, Cooke said.

With bone regeneration, Cooke said the implanted scaffold is made of a biocompatible polymer, and the layered composite material would encourage bone ingrowth. The loaded material is also porous, such that the cells and blood vessels find room to grow.

"Ideally we want (the material) 90 percent porous," Cooke said. The remaining 10 percent would be bulk material.

The polymer can be seen as a prosthetic, only it's bioactive.

"We pre-culture the scaffold. So the cells are already implanted, and the chances of rejection are a lot less," Cooke said.

As part of the interdisciplinary aspect of tissue engineering, the biological sciences department will contribute to the research.

"In vitro cell culture and analysis are done (in Biosciences)," said Kristin Gosselink, assistant professor of biological sciences and collaborator on the project.

"We are looking at how cells behave and monitoring the progression of cartilage cells into bone," Gosselink said. Cartilage cells, unlike embryonic stem cells, are already commited to a tissue lineage, Gosselink said. They cannot turn into other types of cells.

The benefits of this procedure include more physical health and more rapid healing. Patients will be subjected to less post-trauma surgeries, limiting health care costs, said Nathan Castro, graduate mechanical engineering major.

Castro said the biodegradable material is better suited for younger children, who may have birth defects. "Depending on the degradation, this will promote healing," Castro said, who has worked with Cooke for the past two years and in the Pacific Northwest National lab on material-related research.

Using these scaffolds for cranial damage is suitable since it is not as load-bearing as thigh bone damage, Cooke said, where keeping strength and the porosity level is quite difficult.

The research will make use of CT Scanning and 3D CAD design software available at the College of Engineering and UTEP's Bioscience Research Building to design the scaffolds.

Looking at neuronal factors such as brain damage is not a focus.

"I'm just interested in assisting the body to fill the hole," Cooke said.

Texas Tech University's Paul L. Foster School of Medicine could be involved in the future, Cooke said. Projects such as this will add to the Biomedical Enginnering graduate program forming in the College of Enginnering

"There's quite a bit of interest. As long as students are pushing progress forward, it'll open a lot of opportunities," Castro said.

Cooke is looking for a graduate biology student to join the team.

For more information, contact Cooke at

Jorge Gomez may be reached at

– Jorge Gomez

The Prospector. Citing Internet Resources. [Online] Available, October 7, 2008.