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Researchers are working to perfect a technique that would allow patients to grow their own replacement bones from abdominal muscle.

The technique involves placing a mold around a piece of abdominal muscle that has been injected with osteogenin, a recently purified natural protein that the body produces. The muscle, which still has its blood supply intact, is left in the abdomen and grows into a bone in the shape of the mold.The first experiments on humans could begin in the next few months. But it may take five years before the technology is available, said Richard N. Stauffer, director of Johns Hopkins' orthopedics department.

Johns Hopkins' new Laboratory for Musculoskeletal Research is to be led by Dr. A. Hari Reddi, a Hopkins cell biologist formerly with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Reddi and colleagues at NIH and Washington University School of Medicine already have transformed flaps of thigh muscle in rats into bones. The bones took 10 days to form in the rats.

The new bone appears to have a normal internal structure. Further tests will be done to determine the strength of the new bone, Reddi said.

Scientists have long known that bone has remarkable powers of regeneration.

The new process could be used in joint replacement or to replace cancerous bone segments. Bone grafts and transplants have been used in the past, but the bones cannot always be made into the right shape and the transplants don't always work.