Aviation is one of Kansas's top industries, and so is medicine.
In the second part of our Medical Incredible series, we meet a Wichita doctor trying to combine both. Doing so could revolutionize our bones, and our economy.
In the National Institute for Aviation Research lab on the Wichita State Campus, a lot of things get broken, or at least pummeled to see if it breaks. It's all part of the research it does on various parts for airplanes.
One of those people pummeling is Matt Oplinger, a research engineer who focuses on composites. A composite is something composed of two different materials. "It's just much lighter than most metals, and it basically carries a lot more strength verses weight, compared to typical metals," said Oplinger. Sometimes it's carbon fibers bound with epoxy, sometimes it's something else.
He stood by a machine as he spoke. "We want to basically get some kind of idea," said Oplinger, "of how the material will handle some kind of impact if it was on an airplane, if it was on a car, if it was on something."
It's better to break the material at the NIAR lab than anywhere else. "We want to make sure that it's not going to catastrophically fail, we want to make sure it will withstand some kind of impact, and how well it withstands that impact," said Oplinger.
Composites are, in a way, bones for machines. It can be made into almost any form to suit a multitude of functions. But looking at composites as bones is how one doctor sees them, and he's looking at replacing human bones with composite.
Meet Dr. Paul Wooley; the Brit is figuring out how to replace our bones, or at least make better prosthetics. "The beauty of aircraft parts are they're light," explained Dr. Wooley, "and they're strong. And when we're looking to place components that we're interested in - which are bone - that's an ideal match."
Currently, if you need to replace a bone or a joint in your body, you have two choices: metal or plastic. Neither has a lifetime guarantee. "They will typically have the target of or a lifespan of 15 years, 20 years if you treat it really well," he explained.
That's were Dr. Wooley and his quest for composite components comes in. "What we hope to do with our composites is actually end up with a prosthesis that does last a lifetime."
To do that.. you need a prosthetic that temporarily replaces bone, and then allows the bone to grow over it. But that's years away from now. "It's much easier in the interim to design the composite to be a scaffold, so we can grow bone into it, and around it, so it will form a very high level of integration," said Wooley.
For now, he and his team are still in the research stage. "We're right to the point of deciding which of the aircraft style composites are most biologically friendly."
But this makes the sky the limit, according to Michael Good. "Actually, this is a really incredible opportunity for the entire state of Kansas," said the Business Operations Officer for Via Christi Hospital Research.
If composite prosthetics take off, Good says this could open up a whole new economy for the state; especially if something grounds the aviation sector - like a strike. "One of the things that we know about aerospace is that there are good times, and then there are downtimes. And during those downtimes, you lose very highly skilled people to surrounding states or companies. This is an opportunity for those times when business is down, to utilize those tier one and tier two composite manufacturers that are currently designed, and focused, to serve the aerospace manufacturing industry," said Good.
"By utilizing existing companies that are currently serving the aerospace industry," said Good, "potential future times or downtimes could serve the medical device industry manufacture."
But that's years in the future. For now, it's up to people like Dr. Wooley and Matt Oplinger to figure out how to build composites into our lives.
Dr. Wooley is currently looking for the right combination of materials to make a viable composite. But if all goes as planned, composite prosthetics could be a reality in a decade from now.