On December 20, 2014, Per-Ingvar Brånemark passed away after a period of extended illness in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. He was 85.
Professor Brånemark revolutionized the implant dentistry sphere with his discovery of osseointegration in the 1950s – an innovation that would stretch far and beyond the dental world.
After his scientific discovery that the human body would not only tolerate titanium, but also integrate it into living bone tissue, implantable bone conduction solutions have improved the quality of life for millions of people around the world.
A rabbit’s leg
As a young researcher in his native Sweden, Professor Brånemark was not interested in either titanium or implants. He was actually working to advance the world’s knowledge of the anatomy of blood flow, and used an optical device that happened to be enclosed in machined titanium. Attached to a rabbit’s leg, this device made it possible for him to study micro circulation in the bone tissue of rabbits through specially modified light microscopes. When it was time to remove the device from the bone, Brånemark was surprised to find that the bone and the titanium had become inseparable.
Against conventional wisdom
His findings that titanium could integrate in the bone, flew in the face of conventional wisdom. In the mid-1960s, physicians and dentists were still being taught that foreign, non-biological materials could not be integrated into living tissue. The academic world turned against Brånemark’s research.
These were tough times for Brånemark. He was repeatedly turned down when he applied for renewed grants to study tissue anchored implants, yet he persevered. Eventually the US National Institute of Health stepped in and funded his research, which made it possible for him to demonstrate the accuracy of his claims and the success of his surgeries. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare finally approved of the Brånemark method.
From teeth to hearing loss
The first clinical application of titanium was in oral surgery, where implants were used for replacing teeth. For his patients with missing dentures, this meant a whole new life of being able to chew, swallow, speak and smile.
After a while, Brånemark tried a new acoustic method to evaluate how well the titanium implant had fused with the bone, and how stable it was. A patient with dental implants was fitted with a bone vibrator on one of his implants. When tested, the patient experienced very loud sound from the vibrator – even though he suffered from hearing loss. An amazing new discovery was born – that sound can travel through bone!
The Baha solution
Both Dr. Tjellström and Håkansson later followed up on Brånemark’s findings and lay the ground of what was to become the bone conduction hearing implant; the Baha solution. So far, more than 100,000 hearing impaired people all over the world have been helped by this technology and professor Brånemark’s legacy.