Replacement Bones, Grown to Order in Lab
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29 March 2010
By Anne Eisenberg
If a lover breaks your heart, tissue engineers can’t fix it. But if sticks and stones break your bones, scientists may be able to grow custom–size replacements.
Gordana Vunjak–Novakovic, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, has solved one of many problems on the way to successful bone implants: how to grow new bones in the shape of the original.
Vunjak–Novakovic and her research team have created and nourished two small bones from scratch in their laboratory. The new bones, part of a joint at the back of the jaw, were created with human stem cells. The shape is based on digital images of undamaged bones.
Tissue–engineered bones have many implications, according to a leading figure in the field, Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “If your imaging equipment has sufficient high resolution, you can construct virtually any intricate shape you want – for example, the middle ear bone, creating an exact duplicate,” he said. “It’s a splendid example of tissue engineering at its best.”
Engineered bones are being tested in animals and in a few people, and may be common in operating rooms within a decade, scientists said.
Traditional bone grafts are typically harvested from other parts of the body, often a traumatic step, or made of materials like titanium that aren’t always compatible with host bones or cause inflammation, said Francis Lee, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.