Need a Bone? Grow Your Own!

Posted: June 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm

In just a few years, you might be able to grow your own replacement bones from stem cells.

Using pieces of human or animal bone as scaffolds, a Columbia University team has grown more than 50 healthy bones from stem cells -- the largest approximately 2.5 inches long. Among other specimens, the researchers produced a cheek bone, a small part of a femur bone, and a complex temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which is located in front of each ear and allows for chewing, speaking and smiling.

Using custom-built bioreactors housed at Columbia's Biomedical Engineering Lab, the process currently takes three to five weeks, and the team is working on a faster turnaround.

If we could grow this bone, we could do anything else, professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, who heads up the team, told Stem cells are very smart. They can make anything as long as you place them in the right conditions and send them the right signals.

While building the new bone matrix, the cells also break down and decompose the old scaffold. The end result is a fully regenerated bone.

It looks like bone, feels like bone and responds like bone, said Sidney Eisig, a mouth, jaw and neck surgeon who collaborates with the lab to provide data necessary for growing anatomically shaped bones.

- Columbia University professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic

Cells that we use are the cells that make bones in our body normally, Vunjak-Novakovic said of the mesenchymal stem cells which reside in the bone marrow. Theyre constantly making and breaking bone. Similar to human skin, bone tissue is very metabolically active and regenerates quickly, which is why broken bones are able to heal. Bone tissue is actually easier to make than certain types of muscle, Vunjak-Novakovic explained. For example, the heart muscle is not designed to regenerate and is much harder to grow.

To prepare the scaffolds, Vunjak-Novakovics team thoroughly washed the animal bone pieces: first with water, which removed 99 percent of cellular material, then with special detergents to clean water resistant surfaces, and finally with enzymes to remove residual DNA from the cells nuclei. The result was a porous non-identifiable bone that could serve as a scaffold for any bone graft, including human.

They are also experimenting with synthetic silk scaffolds supplied by Tufts University.

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Need a Bone? Grow Your Own!

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