In the course of uneventful secondary bone healing, a fracture gap is progressively overgrown by callus which subsequently calcifies and remodels into new bone. It is widely accepted that callus formation is promoted by mechanical stimulation of the tissue in the fracture gap. However, the optimal levels of the interfragmentary motion's amplitude, frequency and timing remain unknown. The aim of this study was to develop an active fixation system capable of installing a well-controlled mechanical environment in the fracture gap with continuous monitoring of the bone healing progression.
The experimental model was adapted from Tufekci et al. 2018 and required creation of a critical size defect and an osteotomy in a sheep tibia. They were separated by a mobile bone fragment. The distal and proximal parts of the tibia were fixed with an external fixator, whereas the mobile fragment was connected to the proximal part with an active fixator equipped with a linear actuator to move it axially for mechanical stimulation of the tissue in the fracture gap. This configuration installed well-controlled mechanical conditions in the osteotomy, dependent only on the motion of the active fixator and shielded from the influence of the sheep's functional weightbearing. A load sensor was integrated to measure the force acting in the fracture gap during mechanical stimulation. The motion of the bone fragment was controlled by means of a custom-made controller allowing to program stimulation protocols of various profiles, amplitudes and frequencies of loading events. Following in vitro testing, the system was tested in two Swiss White Alpine Sheep. It was configured to simulate immediate weightbearing for one of the animals and delayed weightbearing for the other. The applied loading protocol consisted of 1000 loading events evenly distributed over 12 hours resulting in in a single loading event every 44 seconds.
Bench testing confirmed the ability of the system to operate effectively with frequencies up to 1Hz over a range of stimulation amplitudes from 0.1 to 1.5 mm. Continuous measurements of in vivo callus stiffness revealed progressive fracture consolidation in the course of each experiment. A delayed onset of fracture healing was observed in the sheep with simulated delayed weightbearing.
The conducted preclinical experiments demonstrated its robustness and reliability. The system can be applied for further preclinical research and comprehensive in-depth investigation of fracture healing.