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Another First for Science: Lab-Grown Human Cartilage

Chalk up another unprecedented breakthrough for science…

For the first time, scientists have managed to grow fully functioning human cartilage in a lab.

The discovery comes from Columbia University in New York, where biomedical engineers used stem cells from adult bone marrow to form cartilage, using a process similar to how the body generates the flexible tissue naturally.

This is a vital breakthrough, as cartilage doesn’t contain blood vessels or nerves, so it doesn’t heal once damaged. The only option is to replace what’s harmed with tissue from another part of the body, or from another person.

But Columbia’s work with human stem cells is revolutionizing the process…

From the Body… to the Lab… and Back to the Body

In the past, scientists tried to generate new, lab-grown cartilage by using cells from young animals. However, the different makeup meant that the tissue was too weak for human use.

So the Columbia scientists decided to study how the human body produces its own cartilage – and mimic the process in the lab using stem cells.

As Columbia Biomedical Engineering Postdoctoral Fellow, Sarindr Bhumiratana, explains, “We know these stem cells can turn into bone, into cartilage and into fat. So we take them, and we use this fabrication technique, which is based on the developmental process where the stem cells condense. We base everything [that] we do in the lab to what happens during development when we were a fetus, or when we were young.”

Lo and behold… it works!

Not only that… it’s a relatively straightforward process, too.

The first part involves taking images of the patient’s affected area, using conventional imaging. Then, “we make these three-dimensional files,” according to Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia.

She continues, “We use them to make a scaffold and then, with great precision, we grow a piece that mimics what you’re replacing. This is the kind of technology that should, in principle, make it possible to regenerate any piece of bone interfaced with cartilage in the body. So we do have technology.”

They’re able to customize the process for each individual patient, too.

The question is: How soon will we see this medical technology being used for everyday cartilage repair procedures?

Well, at this point, the Columbia team has cleared the first step – proof of concept. The next goal will take more time – studying the long-term effects of lab-grown cartilage from stem cells to see how it holds up to normal wear and tear.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm