Glass may not seem an obvious material for a bone replacement. But UK surgeons are finding that bioglass not only is stronger than bone: it can bend, bounce and even fight infection.
In 2002, Ian Thompson, a specialist in facial reconstruction at King’s College, London, received an urgent phone call. A patient in his late 20s had been struck by an out-of-control car mounting the pavement. The impact had sent him catapulting over the bonnet of the car, smashing his face and shattering the fragile orbital floor – the tiny bone, no more than 1mm thick, which holds the eyeball in place in the skull.
“Without the orbital floor, your eye moves backwards into the skull, almost as a defensive mechanism,” Thompson explains. “But this results in blurred vision and lack of focus. This patient had also lost the ability to perceive colour. His job involved rewiring aircraft and as he could no longer detect a red wire from a blue one, he’d barely been able to work in three years.”
The accident had happened three years earlier. Since then, surgeons had desperately tried to reconstruct the bony floor and push the eye back into position, first using material implants and then bone from the patient’s own rib. Both attempts had failed. Each time, infection set in after a few months, causing extreme pain. And now the doctors were out of ideas.