When New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first six games of last season because of a forearm injury, what kept him off the field was not the broken bone he suffered months earlier but rather a persistent infection where he received a metal plate to help repair his arm.
Tom Webster, a chemical engineer at Northeastern University, believes Gronkowski might have avoided infection and returned to action faster if the plate had been made of a new kind of material in development at his nanomedicine laboratory.
Nanomaterials, as they are called, have been shown in tests to repel bacteria and help surrounding tissue heal faster than normal because their structures more closely resemble those of real bone and muscle.
In reality, the materials are not new. They are just smaller. The chief principle of nanomedicine is that the properties of materials used for medical parts — titanium, for instance, or silicon nitride, a ceramic used in joint replacements — can be altered simply by shrinking their fundamental building blocks.