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Research shows potential for using pearl mussels as a bone substitute

Pearls are often referred to as the world’s first precious stone: as early as 2300 BC, they served as a gift for the Chinese royal family. A new study from the University of Western Australia has shown that mother-of-pearl can be used as a synthetic bone substitute.

It is also believed that in ancient Rome, pearls were considered so precious that Julius Caesar, who was said to be a connoisseur of pearls, passed a law that only allowed those who belonged to the ruling class to wear pearl jewelry.

While pearls have a long history in the jewelry industry, pioneering research into the use of mother-of-pearl as a synthetic bone substitute is now taking place off the coast of Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

A collaboration between the University of Western Australia (UWA) and biotechnology company Marine Biomedical aims to develop “pearl bone” using mother-of-pearl, which is widespread in the region, as a viable alternative for patients requiring bone grafting and reconstructive surgery.

Professor Minghao Zheng, a researcher and orthopedic doctor with thirty years of experience, said that calcium carbonate or limestone is traditionally used in surgery as bone substitutes, and he saw the potential of using pearl mussels as a reliable and abundant source.

“Our work has proven that pearl bone has a significant advantage in the process of new bone formation compared to other synthetic bone substitutes on the market,” Zheng said, adding that the results of the study are “very encouraging” and its “potential for applications in orthopedics should not be underestimated.”

“There is a revolutionary prospect of using the marine biomineralization process instead of traditional devices in orthopedic, trauma and reconstructive surgery.”

“Currently, about 4% of the world’s population suffers from fractures every year, and about 30% of them need bone grafting, and it is for them that this bone substitute can play an important role,” Zheng said in an interview with ABC News Australia.

According to Zheng, traffic accidents and an aging population are one of the main reasons for the increase in bone-related problems, which may require the use of “pearl bone” as a synthetic substitute.

The cost of synthetic substitutes and bone grafts worldwide is estimated to be over US$4 billion (AU$5.49 billion) per year.

“The initial application is for open fractures, but in the future, if a product is developed, we may also use Pearl Bone for other procedures such as dental fillings and spine surgery,” Zheng added.

Professor Tim Colmer, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at UWA, said the establishment of Marine Biomedical in Broome demonstrated its commitment to the economic development of the Kimberley and to developing research and educational opportunities in the region.

Robert Banfield, chairman of Willie Creek Pearls and partner at Marine Biomedical, said this was a great opportunity for Broome’s world-famous pearl industry.

“The modern pearl industry tends to view mother-of-pearl as a by-product, but this opportunity to develop a pearl bone from this amazing source material opens up entirely new opportunities for the pearl farming industry,” said Banfield.

Marine Biomedical will seek regulatory approval for the use of “pearl bone” in Australia and other countries in the next three to four years.

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