Can stem cells repair damaged bone?

A 'revolutionary' new way of transplanting stem cells could help repair damaged bone and cartilage, according to media reports.

The technique could speed up healing in trauma victims, such as those involved in motorbike accidents, help mend shattered bones and potentially have an impact on treating conditions such as osteoarthritis, they said.

Key to this latest break-through by Edinburgh academics is a 'bioactive scaffold', which protects stem cells when they are placed into the patient.

The rigid mesh that forms the scaffold is coated or impregnated with drugs to help the cells grow quickly.

What is the story?
Four charities put together a £1.4 million investment for a collaborative research project among experts from different disciplines at the University of Edinburgh.

Over two years, researchers will try to tie together three aspects of bone and cartilage repair that have already been studied.

Using mesenchymal stem cells to repair bone and cartilage is an ongoing area of research, as is creating a holding material for stem cells being transplanted into the body. This project hopes to combine both avenues of research with available drugs and compounds that boost bone growth.

In combination, these elements could become what has been referred to as a 'bioactive scaffold'.

This means creating a secure structure for the stem cells to sit on and be protected by, in combination with growth-promoting compounds built in the scaffold.

Once the technique is refined, the researchers plan for a small clinical trial to be carried out on people with high-impact or slow-healing fractures.

What do the researchers say?
Dr Brendon Noble, from the Edinburgh Centre for Regenerative Medicine, who is to lead the research project, said: 'Within the context of these studies, we're not going to be attacking osteoarthritis. In the future, of course it's an aim.

'Osteoarthritis is different to a simple physical tear, it is an ongoing biological, pathological problem.'

Using biotechnology to treat bone and cartilage damage is not entirely new, but Dr Noble said: 'What is special about this is that we have support to do all of these things in one go, on one site and to work with orthopaedic colleagues and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service.'

Even if all goes well with the planned phase I clinical trial in 2010, it will be over five years before the technique reaches the clinic, he said.

What do other experts say?
Mr Tim Briggs, a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, said the research project was 'exciting'.

His team pioneered using chondrocytes to repair knee cartilage about 10 years ago.

Commenting on the stem cell project, he said: 'It's surely the next step.'

Patients aged under 55 with sporting injuries are the most likely to benefit.

'At the moment there's nothing to offer these patients and they are too young for a knee replacement,' said Mr Briggs.

University of Edinburgh

Informing Patients

  • Scientists are looking to see if stem cells can be used to boost bone and cartilage healing.
  • Patients who could benefit would be those with high-impact fractures, slow-healing fractures or compact cartilage damage.
  • Osteoarthritis is not a key target of the therapy.
  • Even if all goes well, the technique will not be available for over five years.

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