Medical composites lab at WSU finding success

Most people don't know what a micro-computed tomography machine is.

Paul Wooley happens to have one.

Hundreds of future jobs in Wichita will owe their creation in part to its powers, he says.

A micro-computed tomography machine is worth about $300,000 and visualizes bone so well that scientists like Wooley can easily see the microstructure of bone — including tiny bones inside rats and mice.

As Wooley and his fellow scientists continue to tinker with the first inventions of a new generation of biomedical implants in Wichita, hopefully creating hundreds or even thousands of jobs in the process, the tomography machine will be key.

So will money.

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Aviation scientists in Wichita four years ago came up with the idea, unusual at the time, that they could work with medical specialists and invent medical devices as well as airplane components and parts.

They were working with composite materials and realized that composites were so pliable and strong that they could be made into devices of almost infinite varieties of flexibility, hardness or usefulness of other kinds.

The result, after they submitted written proposals, was an award by the Kansas Bioscience Authority in May 2009 pledging $4 million in seed money and holding out the possibility of a total of $20 million not just to start a new business but to invent a new industry: making operating tables to battlefield splints to hip replacements from aircraft composites.

Wooley last week said that he and fellow Wichita scientists are close to announcing several pieces of good news, including the signing of a contract with a major orthopedic device manufacturer and other agreements with Kansas composites companies.

His lab research, which includes testing of composite bone implants in rats and mice, is progressing nicely. The tomography machine, he said, will help him and his team revolutionize orthopedics as they invent new ways to fill gaps in damaged living bone, and figure out what kinds of composite materials will work well and react benignly with tissue, first in rats and mice, then in humans.

Several devices, tools and implants are in various stages of design or study.

"We do have some prototype devices that we're working out with the surgeons, and we're hoping to announce some new devices within a year or so," Wooley said.

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But while ideas have been fermenting, the state budget melted down.

Wooley and fellow scientists, working now for a new outfit called the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, or CIBOR, know that state budget cuts have given Authority officials pause about the state money.

"I've been on both sides of this kind of thing," said interim CIBOR director John Moore, a former Kansas lieutenant governor.

"These decisions when the money isn't there can be tough; the people here want to have the money, but I'm perhaps more sympathetic than others here might be to the situation the KBA is in. They have a lot of competing interests to work with.

"We're confident that the KBA will commit the $4 million to the current fiscal year," Moore said. "We're asking for that additional $3.5 million, but we are one of four centers around the state asking them for money, and everyone in every part of the state government has had to cut back. They have not lost their commitment to us, but they've had to deal with some very serious general financial circumstances."

CIBOR has moved ahead with plans even with financial uncertainties, Moore said. CIBOR, which has labs scattered around Wichita in several places, will soon move its offices and three of its five labs to 9229 E. 37th St. North, just west of Webb Road.