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Bone transplants or grafts can be problematic. Grafts from cadaver bones can be rejected and need immunosuppression drugs. Grafts from other bones in your body can lead to new pain in the place where the graft was taken from. Then there’s the longevity issues that come with such transplants — most bone transplants last only 10-20 years. This leads to further surgeries and/or doctors discouraging younger patients from getting replacements and grafts because the risk of several future surgeries seems too great.
But what would happen if you didn’t need to rely on a cadaver or extra surgery on other parts of your body? What if your own stem cells could be used to grow a perfect copy of the bone you need? It seems incredible, but that’s what Brooklyn based company, EpiBone, is attempting. EpiBone uses a combination of a patient’s own stem cells and a 3D printer in a lab to actually grow new bones in under three weeks. The implications of which could revolutionize the health industry.
“Right now we’re focusing on bones above the neck, for cancer, trauma, congenital defects and dental surgery,” 37 year old CEO Nina Tandon told Scientific American. “In this area, about 100,000 procedures are performed every year in the U.S. alone. After blood, bone is the most transplanted tissue.”
EpiBone’s dynamic CEO, Tandon, originally trained as an electrical engineer. But in the early 2000’s, she took a physiology night class at a local community college that changed the course of her life. Learning more about DNA left her fascinated with the possibilities of combining human physiology with her engineering skills. She ended up going to MIT to study neural interface, and there, she came up for the idea for EpiBone while pursuing her PhD.
“I helped spin EpiBone out of my PhD supervisor’s lab together with another post-doc, Sarindr Bhumiratana,” Tandon told Scientific American. “I was growing cardiac and neural tissue, and he was growing bone and cartilage. So this is certainly a team effort.”
To grow EpiBone, Tandon explained, scientists take a CT scan of the bone they’ll need to engineer. This helps them create a 3D model. Then, from the model, a 3D printer produces a scaffold (this can be made out of protein and collagen from animal bones or synthetic material). After that, they take stem cells from the patient out of their fat, and those cells are put into the scaffold and then incubated. They regenerate, and form around the bone. This process results in a bone that the body will recognize as the patient’s. The crazy part is that it only takes three weeks to grow a bone that’s personalized to the individual patient.
So far, EpiBone has been successful in animal trials, but yet to be tested in humans. However, EpiBone plans to introduce the technology into human trials soon. If they succeed, they look to improve hundreds of thousands of lives. From not needing immunosuppression drugs (because the bone uses your own DNA) to the longevity of the transplant, it will improve the field immensely.
“Synthetic implants only last a certain amount of time, and people are living longer and longer,” Tandon said. “If you get injured at 15 and live to 115, the idea that your implant only lasts 10-15 years is becoming unsustainable.”
Tandon warned though that while they were excited, the integration of the practice into routine surgeries is still a few years off. “In terms of taking this to the market, we’re looking at 2022 or 2023,” she said. “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Despite her caution, Tandon is excited at the thought of EpiBone being the wave of the future.
“I get really excited about the idea of congenital defects being a thing of the past … no kids born with cranial defects anymore,” she told CNN. “We’d love to see no one ever need revision surgeries after a knee replacement because their implants will last as long as they do.”
Implants that last a lifetime would be a dramatic improvement over the current technology. Epibone’s innovative tech has the potential to make many lives easier while improving quality of life significantly, and that’s something to celebrate.