- Human pathology

Home > Technical section > Biotechnology > biomaterial


Friday 14 October 2011

Definition: A biomaterial is any matter, surface, or construct that interacts with biological systems.

The development of biomaterials, as a science, is about fifty years old. The study of biomaterials is called biomaterials science.

It has experienced steady and strong growth over its history, with many companies investing large amounts of money into the development of new products.

Biomaterials science encompasses elements of medicine, biology, chemistry, tissue engineering and materials science.

Biomaterials can generally be produced either in nature or synthesized in the laboratory using a variety of chemical approaches utilizing metallic components or ceramics.

Biomaterials are often used and/or adapted for a medical application, and thus comprises whole or part of a living structure or biomedical device which performs, augments, or replaces a natural function.

Such functions may be benign, like being used for a heart valve, or may be bioactive with a more interactive functionality such as hydroxy-apatite coated hip implants.

Biomaterials are also used every day in dental applications, surgery, and drug delivery.

A construct with impregnated pharmaceutical products can be placed into the body, which permits the prolonged release of a drug over an extended period of time.

A biomaterial may also be an autograft, allograft or xenograft used as a transplant material.

Inorganic crystallization and biomineralization

Materials scientists are currently paying more and more attention to the process inorganic crystallization within a largely organic matrix of naturally occurring compounds.

This process typically generally occurs at ambient temperature and pressure.

Interestingly, the vital organisms through which these crystalline minerals form are capable of consistently producing intricately complex structures.

Understanding the processes in which living organisms are capable of regulating the growth of crystalline minerals such as silica could lead to significant scientific advances and novel synthesis techniques for nanoscale composite materials, or nanocomposites.

Self-assembly for biomaterials

Self-assembly is the most common term in use in the modern scientific community to describe the spontaneous aggregation of particles (atoms, molecules, colloids, micelles, etc.) without the influence of any external forces.

Large groups of such particles are known to assemble themselves into thermodynamically stable, structurally well-defined arrays, quite reminiscent of one of the 7 crystal systems found in metallurgy and mineralogy (e.g. face-centered cubic, body-centered cubic, etc.).

The fundamental difference in equilibrium structure is in the spatial scale of the unit cell (or lattice parameter) in each particular case.

Molecular self-assembly is found widely in biological systems and provides the basis of a wide variety of complex biological structures. This includes an emerging class of mechanically superior biomaterials based on microstructural features and designs found in nature.

Thus, self-assembly is also emerging as a new strategy in chemical synthesis and nanotechnology.

Molecular crystals, liquid crystals, colloids, micelles, emulsions, phase-separated polymers, thin films and self-assembled monolayers all represent examples of the types of highly ordered structures which are obtained using these techniques.

The distinguishing feature of these methods is self-organization.

Structural hierarchy

Nearly all materials could be seen as hierarchically structured, especially since the changes in spatial scale bring about different mechanisms of deformation and damage.

However, in biological materials this hierarchical organization is inherent to the microstructure.

One of the first examples of this, in the history of structural biology, is the early X-Ray scattering work on the hierarchical structure of hair and wool by Astbury and Woods.

In bone, for example, collagen is the building block of the organic matrix—a triple helix with diameter of 1.5 nm. These tropocollagen molecules are intercalated with the mineral phase (hydroxyapatite, a calcium phosphate) forming fibrils that curl into helicoids of alternating directions.

These "osteons" are the basic building blocks of bones, with the volume fraction distribution between organic and mineral phase being about 60/40. In another level of complexity, the hydroxyapatite crystals are platelets that have a diameter of approximately 70–100 nm and thickness of 1 nm. They originally nucleate at the gaps between collagen fibrils.

Similarly, the hierarchy of abalone shell begins at the nanolevel, with an organic layer having a thickness of 20–30 nm. This layer proceeds with single crystals of aragonite (a polymorph of CaCO3) consisting of "bricks" with dimensions of 0.5 and finishing with layers approximately 0.3 mm (mesostructure).

Crabs are arthropods whose carapace is made of a mineralized hard component (which exhibits brittle fracture) and a softer organic component composed primarily of chitin. The brittle component is arranged in a helical pattern. Each of these mineral ‘rods’ ( 1 μm diameter) contains chitin–protein fibrils with approximately 60 nm diameter. These fibrils are made of 3 nm diameter canals which link the interior and exterior of the shell.


Biomaterials are used in:

- joint replacements
- bone plates
- bone cement
- artificial ligaments and tendons
- dental implants for tooth fixation
- blood vessel prostheses
- heart valves
- skin repair devices (artificial tissue)
- cochlear replacements (cochlear implants)
- contact lenses
- breast implants


Biomaterials must be compatible with the body, and there are often issues of biocompatibility which must be resolved before a product can be placed on the market and used in a clinical setting.

Because of this, biomaterials are usually subjected to the same requirements of those undergone by new drug therapies.


All manufacturing companies are also required to ensure traceability of all of their products so that if a defective product is discovered, others in the same batch may be traced.

See also

- bioengineering
- biotechnology