The human body has amazing capacities for repairing itself, but it’s far from perfect; some injuries or deformities are too much for the body itself to make whole. For ages, that’s been accepted as a fact of life, but as technology develops, there are fewer and fewer unfixable things that can befall a person. In the 19th century, it would have seemed inconceivable that bacterial infections could one day be killed off with a simple pill, but antibiotics would be arriving soon. Today, most people would say that growing real human body parts is impossible, but we’re starting to learn that that’s not the case.
Nina Tandon has been growing human tissue since her days as a biomedical engineering student at Columbia University. She began experimenting with cardiac and skin tissue, then moved on to one of the trickiest types of organic material – bone. Tandon is the co-founder and CEO of EpiBone, a startup that has discovered a way to literally grow human bones.
Repairing damaged bones is painful and challenging, as anyone who’s ever broken a bone will know. It gets even more difficult when bone is actually missing due to disease or congenital deformity, or when a bone is broken so severely that it can’t fuse itself back together without additional help. Bone grafts are painful, unpredictable and carry a host of potential complications, so they’ve been a major focus for the medical industry lately. With 3D printing and other technology sweeping in to fix even the most challenging medical issues, bone grafts are a priority, and we’ve seen many researchers take on the issue with an intriguing variety of approaches.
What most of those approaches have in common, though, is 3D technology. Some organizations are printing synthetic bone grafts with biocompatible materials like ceramics; others are using animal bones as a base for regenerating human bones. EpiBone falls into the second category, but what makes the company particularly interesting is that their process uses a patient’s own cells to grow new bones outside the body.
EpiBone’s technique is surprisingly simple. A CT scan is taken of the patient’s damaged bone, and a 3D model is created. That 3D model is used to CNC mill an animal – usually cow – bone into the exact shape of the graft that needs to be implanted into the patient. Then, fat cells are taken from the patient, and stem cells from the fat are isolated. (Stem cells from fat are capable of growing into many other different forms of tissue, which makes them ideal for this process.) Those stem cells are placed into a bioreactor with the milled animal bone; the idea is that they will grow around the bone, essentially engulfing it – when the bioreactor is opened, a new bone comprised of the patient’s own cells will be ready for implant. Once it’s implanted, it continues to grow and merge with the bone around it.
Of course, it’s not really as simple as it sounds – conditions have to be carefully engineered and monitored for the cells to grow in the way that they need to. EpiBone is currently testing the procedure by growing cheekbones for pigs, and human trials could potentially begin in a few years, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Ultimately, the team at EpiBone wants to try growing larger and more complex bones, as well. Check out the video below for a close-up look at the process. Discuss this new technology in the EpiBone 3D Printed Bone forum over at 3DPB.com.