Regenerative medicine is a new field in science that focuses on helping you heal faster. It can help a body repair broken bones in a fraction of the time it would normally take. An EU-funded research project is using gene therapy and stem cells to help damaged bones regenerate faster and open up new market opportunities for tissue-repair technology in the European medical sector.
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Regenerative medicine aims to regenerate damaged tissues by developing functional cell, tissue, and organ substitutes to repair, replace or enhance biological function in the affected area.
The technologies involved are based on the successful interaction between three components. These include the scaffold that holds the cells together to create the tissue's physical form and the cells that create the tissue. Biological signalling mechanisms (such as bioreactors or devices which stimulate cells) that direct the cells to express the desired tissue phenotype (an organism's observable characteristics or traits) make up the third component.
Through his CollRegen research project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Fergal O'Brien of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is pursuing specific projects in all three areas in a bid to develop bone-graft substitutes from biomaterials and laboratory-engineered bone tissue for implantation in damaged areas.
By creating innovative bioengineered alternatives to bone grafts and transplants, Prof. O'Brien aims to revolutionise the healing of fractures and breaks and reduce treatment and recovery times for patients. The objective is to ultimately pave the way for innovative treatments for sufferers of other conditions involving tissue damage.
"We are trying to encourage the body to repair itself in instances where it normally might not do so," explains Prof. O'Brien, who received an ERC Starting Grant for the project in 2009.
CollRegen is basing its research on creating collagen-based biomaterials, which are combined with gene therapy, growth factors and stem cell technology to promote tissue repair.
Bridging broken bones
One of the main focuses of the project has been the development of new scaffold materials that can be used to encourage the flow of oxygenated blood to damaged bone. Many defects fail to heal because of poor infiltration of blood vessels and the new tissue struggles to survive without a supply of oxygen and nutrients. The scaffold provides signals for the recruitment of, and support for new blood vessels to grow into.
With his team, Prof. O'Brien has developed an innovative scaffold material made from collagen and nano-sized particles of hydroxyapatite (a calcium phosphate ceramic) which acts as a platform to attract the body's own stem cells to repair bone in the damaged area using gene therapy. The cells are programmed to over-produce proteins which encourage the regrowth of healthy bone tissue.
The significance of this work is that it provides a way for new bone tissue to be generated where it has been damaged, or destroyed by disease, and avoids the need for surgical bone grafts. Bone grafts, either from another part of the person's body, or from a donor, carry the risk of infection. There is also the risk that the grafted bone will not properly 'take' at the site where it is required.
"By stimulating the body to repair itself, using non-viral gene therapeutics, these negative side effects can be avoided and bone tissue growth is promoted efficiently and safely," says Prof O'Brien.
Potential for further regeneration
He explains that there is a large potential market for bone-graft substitute materials, such as the innovative scaffolds being developed by the CollRegen team, and that a future objective is to develop a commercially viable, functionalised platform for use in the medical sector.
Prof. O'Brien and his team are also investigating how this process can be used not only to engineer bone tissue but to deliver genes that promote the formation of blood vessels in the regeneration of tissues in other parts of the body.
"This technique of using scaffolds combined with therapeutic genes to repair damaged tissue could be applied in the future to repair damaged heart or even brain tissue," explains Prof O'Brien. "We're hoping the research we're undertaking will lead to successful regenerative therapeutics for other damaged or diseased tissues in addition to bone."