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Space technology used to grow human bones

20 September 2017

Technology developed to witness black holes colliding is now being used to grow 3D samples of bones in a laboratory for the first time.

Image of placental-like cells exhibiting strong cell fusion due to being "nanokicked". Nucleus is blue and cytoskeleton is green. (Credit: Christina Boyle, UWS)

The research team used measurement technology, based on the sophisticated laser interferometer systems designed in the UK for gravitational wave detection, to turn stem cells into bone cells. The precision technology used in this technique, created through the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), is called ‘nanokicking’. 

Stuart Reid, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at The University of Strathclyde (formerly at the University of the West of Scotland), said: “Having spent 15 years working in astrophysics and gravitational wave detection (the LIGO project) it is amazing to see technology arising that could revolutionise key aspects of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”

According to the STFC, the process of nanokicking, vibrating stem cells thousands of times a second by fractions of a millimetre, turns the cells into a ‘bone putty’ that has potential to be used to heal bone fractures and fill bone where there is a gap.

These mesenchymal stem cells, which are naturally produced by the human body in bone marrow, are the building blocks for life as they have the unique potential to become bone, cartilage, ligament, tendon and muscle.

Using the laser technology created to measure gravitational wave detections, scientists are able to measure precisely how much of a kicking the stem cells are getting.

Bone is the second most grafted tissue after blood and is used in reconstructive, maxillofacial and orthopaedic surgeries – but current options for bone graft are very limited.

Fluorescent image of mesenchymal stem cells. Stretched-out structure of cell is indicative of differentiation to osteoblasts (bone building cells). Nucleus is shown in blue with the cytoskeleton shown in red. (Credit: Prof. Matt Dalby, Glasgow Uni)

The latest development in nanokicking has allowed scientists from the Universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde, the West of Scotland and Galway to grow three-dimensional samples of bone in the laboratory for the first time. When implanted into patients, these 3D grafts will be able to repair or replace damaged sections of bone.

As the graft could be made from the patient’s own cells it avoids problems of rejection.

Matthew Dalby, professor of cell engineering at the University of Glasgow, is one of the lead authors of the paper. He said: “This is an exciting step forward for nanokicking, and it takes us one step further towards making the technique available for use in medical therapies. We are especially excited by these developments as much of the work we’re doing now is funded by Sir Bobby Charlton’s charity Find a Better Way, which aims to help people who have been seriously injured by landmines and where there is often a large bone deficit as a result of blast injuries.”

Now the team has advanced the process to the point where it can be replicated and is affordable, so will begin the first human trials in around three years. The team will combine the bone putty with large 3D printed scaffolds to fill large bone defects.

Project lead Professor Manuel Salmeron-Sanchez, from the University of Glasgow, said: “For many people who have lost legs in landmine accidents, the difference between being confined to a wheelchair and being able to use a prosthesis could be only a few centimetres of bone.

“In partnership with Find A Better Way, we have already proven the effectiveness of our scaffolds in veterinary medicine, by helping to grow new bone to save the leg of a dog who would otherwise have had to have it amputated.”

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