A much-awarded bio-materials scientist and a leader in the field of bio-medical technology, Cuie Wen began her academic career at the institution then called the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but she long ago shifted her gaze from aeroplanes to the human body. Now a professor of bio-materials engineering at RMIT, she says that as well as their aeronautical utility, titanium alloys are used to make light-weight and strong replacement joints and other replacement parts for the human body and work continues to refine the alloys and their applications.
“We borrowed titanium 6 aluminium 4 vanadium alloy (which includes small proportions of aluminium and vanadium) from the aerospace industry for biomedical use; it is not naturally compatible,” she says. “It has imperfect bio-compatibility. So we added new alloying elements and we provided bio-compatibility.”
The most bio-compatible metal in existence, titanium is resistant to corrosion from bodily fluids. Altering the proportions of metals in the alloy can minimise the human body’s immune response and prevent rejection. In recent decades, these strong alloys have put many millions of people around the world back on their feet and back in action – replacing eroded and broken body parts including hips, knees, and shoulders with manufactured replacements.
Passionate about helping people with skeletal disease and injury to lead healthy, productive and independent lives, Wen says the use of smart bio-materials such as refined titanium alloys and biodegradable metals is becoming increasingly widespread in the medical field. She is now working on new alloys with ever better bio-compatibility, including magnesium, iron, and zinc and their alloys. Her work also continues in fields including surface modification, nanostructured metals, metal foams, nano-laminates, and battery materials.
On another front, Wen is developing research on refining methods for 3D printing implants. “Printing is a very hot topic,” she says. “If we print a scaffold which is porous, then the human body’s fluids and nutrients can transport inside the scaffold and stimulate the cells to grow faster.”
Based on MRI and CT scans, 3-D printed implants can be manufactured to precisely match the patient’s internal architecture, promoting faster and more comprehensive recovery. Every individual has differently-sized and shaped bones and joints, Wen adds, with different amounts of porosity. “If we use digital manufacturing, we will be able to produce personalised implants.”
Born in Hunan in China, Wen has lived in Australia for almost 20 years, following a period working in Japan at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science. She says she found it challenging to relocate from China to first Japan then Australia, setting up laboratories and learning to understand new cultures.
Now editor-in-chief of the Smart Materials in Manufacturing journal, an editorial board member on seven other journals in the field, and the winner of ARC Discovery, Linkage and LIEF grants, an NHMRC project grant and Australia-India Strategic Research grants, Wen says her bio-materials work has been well-funded.
“I’m very lucky,” Wen says. “I have been given the funding to get the facilities I need for my research.”