A young girl’s spark of imagination inspired a career developing innovative biomedical materials that improve lives

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In the United States alone, nearly 1 million hip and knee replacement procedures are performed every year. State-of-the-art titanium replacements are connected to existing bone using acrylic bone cement during surgery.

Unfortunately, the implants typically fail in 10 to 12 years, largely because the metallic materials used are foreign to the human body. The implants don’t bond strongly to surrounding tissues. Cracking and degradation of the bone cement occurs, for example.

The short lifetime of the implant creates a problematic scenario for younger patients, who later require a second replacement surgery.

Susmita Bose and her colleagues at Washington State University and beyond have tackled the materials problem by developing a body-friendly calcium phosphate-based coating for the implant materials. Last year the National Institutes of Health awarded her a $1.8 million grant that will enable her team to continue refining the coating and improve the way in which implants integrate into the body. Once integrated, the coated implants are expected to last longer – possibly doubling the life of cemented implants.

Biomolecules to promote cell growth and an anti-osteoporosis drug to aid the body’s healing process are added to the mix in the lab.

The team’s research has attracted the attention of media worldwide, including BBC, NPR, and MSNBC. Bose currently holds three patents for medical devices and is a co-inventor on five active patent applications. She’s published more than 200 journal articles. Physicians from the Mayo Clinic and the Stanford Medical School are collaborating with her team.

“There are companies that are very interested in our technology,” Bose says. “We are hoping that in a few years it will come to market.”

Faraway inspiration

As if it was only yesterday, Susmita Bose describes the moment she was inspired to begin the journey that led her to where she is today, one of the world’s top biomedical materials researchers.

The then middle-schooler was lying on her back on the rooftop of her family’s home in Ranaghat, West Bengal, India, gazing idly at the puffy white clouds drifting overhead. She daydreamed about the future, wondering where life might lead her.

A plane poked through the clouds, gaining altitude as its wings glinted in the sunshine. She didn’t know its destination, only that it was en route to a faraway place. Bose felt a burst of inspiration. Like the plane, she would cross the seas and chase her destiny in the land of opportunity she’d heard so much about: the United States of America.

Little did it matter that none of Bose’s family had ever been to the United States. The foundation for turning her ambition into reality already was in place. Bose was a high-achieving, ambitious student who loved physics, chemistry, math, and biology, interests encouraged by her mother, a math and science teacher.

And Bose had taken to heart another of her mom’s life lessons that she now passes on to her WSU students: Perseverance, focus, and big dreams can deliver unimagined rewards.

After graduating from high school, Bose earned a chemistry degree, with honors, at the University of Kalyani, located near the Ganges River in the Nadia district of West Bengal.

Two years later, she added a master’s degree in chemistry, completed at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, one of the country’s top technology institutes. The opportunity to fulfill her dream arrived in the form of offers from multiple doctoral programs at U.S. universities. She chose Rutgers, spending the next five years in New Jersey completing a degree in physical-organic chemistry.

There she met her husband, Amit Bandyopadhyay, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ceramic Research at Rutgers. The couple moved in 1997 when Bandyopadhyay was offered a tenure-track faculty position at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in Pullman.

It was the next step in a bold journey that has exceeded Bose’s teenage dreams. Today, she is considered among the nation’s top scientists researching medical materials, including 3-D printing of bonelike materials to make implants more biocompatible and longer lasting.

Susmita Bose and graduate students  use a 3-D printer to produce bone scaffolds from a powder composed primarily of calcium phosphate.  (Washington State University)
Susmita Bose and graduate students use a 3-D printer to produce bone scaffolds from a powder composed primarily of calcium phosphate. (Washington State University)

Bettering lives

Everyone – from baby boomers to millennials – has a vested interest in Bose’s research as it moves closer to becoming available in the medical marketplace. Achieving that goal will mean increased mobility and longer-lasting joint replacements. And fractured or otherwise damaged bones requiring surgery will be repaired with new materials less likely to be rejected by the human body.

Bose and Bandyopadhyay have focused their efforts on two major initiatives. The first is using 3-D printers to create bone replacement materials. The second is perfecting the recipe of minerals, biomolecules, and drugs for a future bone material and for coatings applied to traditional titanium implants, like hip joints, to extend their life.

“Our research involves chemistry, biology, materials science, mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and expertise from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine,” Bose notes. “Without that interdisciplinary approach, this type of biomedical engineering research cannot be addressed.”

In a lab on the west edge of the Pullman campus, Bose and graduate students including Sahar Vahabzadeh and Tom Gualtieri use a 3-D printer to produce bone scaffolds from a powder composed primarily of calcium phosphate. The repurposed printer uses an inkjet to spray a plastic binder over a bed of powder in layers just 20 microns thick – about half the width of a human hair.

Once implanted, the scaffold provides support for a damaged bone or joint as its regrows tissue and blood vessels. The scaffold dissolves naturally as the bone grows back.

Education underlies success

Despite her stature in the world of medical materials and the pressures associated with advancing her research, Bose’s No. 1 focus on campus is her students and their success. That viewpoint springs in part from her own college experiences, when mentors guided her through some of the challenges she encountered. But her outlook is even more reflective of a deep desire to graduate students who are honorable human beings.

“I say this to my students,” she says. “When you graduate under my supervision, I not only want you to be proficient in science and engineering, I also want you to be hardworking, honest and humble – a good human being. After all,” she adds, “education delivers knowledge, and gaining knowledge helps us realize how little we really know.”

Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.