The Future of Bone Repair: Use “Play-Doh”

While not a silent killer, weak bone structure is definitely a silent destroyer.

The statistics bear that out, too…

Each year, around 1.5 million Americans suffer a fracture, due to weak bones. And if you’re older than 20, chances are, you’re losing bone every day – and you don’t even know it.

That’s because after 20, your body stops producing more bone than it loses. The situation reverses, and you begin to lose more bone than your body can add.

Hence the advice to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D to prevent bone loss and diseases like osteoporosis, which makes bones weak and more likely to break.

Bone disease is a costly problem, too. In the United States alone, osteoporosis – the most common bone disease – costs almost $18 billion every year in medical treatment.

With people living longer, it’s likely that we’ll see bone disorders occurring more frequently.

So this is a timely breakthrough…

Supersized Stem Cells

At Saint-Luc University in Brussels, doctors have repaired bones using a malleable bone substitute created from the body’s own stem cells.

The technique involves extracting a sugar-cubed size piece of fatty tissue found in the abdomen. Unlike the conventional form of extraction – harvesting bone marrow in the pelvis with a needle before transplanting it back into the affected area – this method sucks 500 times more stem cells from the area.

From that, the scientists were able to grow flexible bone tissue from the cells and inject it in the limbs of patients with bone fractures and defects.

Dr. Denis Dufrane, Coordinator of Saint Luc’s Centre for Tissue and Cellular Therapy, explains that this Play-Doh-like replacement bone material is “complete bone tissue that we recreate in the bottle,” which can be molded to fill cracks and fractures in bones, much like a dentist inserting a filling in a tooth.

As a result, “… when we do transplants in a bone defect or hole, you have a higher chance of bone formation.”

If you think this sounds like make-believe, think again.

The team has successfully tested the technique on 11 patients with bone fractures and tumors.

In fact, one 13-year-old boy who’d suffered a bone fracture and had a bone disorder that didn’t allow the body to repair the bone underwent the treatment. A little over a year later, he was back playing sports.

Some had also undergone chemotherapy for the tumors – an effective, but rather blunt therapy, as it weakens the bones, too. Others suffered from bone marrow disease, where the recovery is often difficult.

The Next Go-To Bone Repair Treatment?

Denis Dufrane is clear about where the technique goes next: “We know that the product in this technology has the capacity to reconstitute and regenerate bones. And the big hope is to propose this technology directly in emergency rooms to reconstitute bones when you have a trauma or something like that.”

Beyond that, Dufrane says the technique could also become a go-to treatment, revolutionizing bone repair in children and fusing together degenerated spinal discs in elderly people.

To get there, a specially created spinoff company called Novadip Biosciences was founded last year. Its remit is to seek investment, in order for the Saint Luc scientists to commercialize their innovation. And to expand the treatment, it may also solicit donors to create a bank of bone tissue for other patients.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

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Martin Denholm

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