Growing Bone in a Laboratory: Nano Particles Used to Regenerate Body's Own Tissues

Osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones, is a global epidemic: an estimated 200 million women worldwide suffer bone fractures as a result of the condition. One in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 will experience osteoporosis-related bone fractures. Treatment of the condition and its damage incur a huge amount of healthcare costs every year. New ways to repair and regenerate bone are urgently needed. 

Biologists at the University of Birmingham in England think they have found a natural and more effective way to address the problem: by mimicking the body’s healing process in order to coax it into regrowing bone.

In a study newly published in Scientific Reports, the researchers describe stimulating bone growth by using nano-sized particles called vesicles to repair and even regenerate tissue. Although in the early stages, this treatment could potentially be used to help regenerate not just bones, but also teeth and cartilage.  

10_03_skeleton Addressing bone health will likely become a bigger problem as populations continue to age and push their bodies to the limit. Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

“Current treatments typically target only a single biological pathway of bone regeneration,” lead study researcher Sophie Cox told Newsweek in an email. “Our treatment mimics the body's natural healing processes and as such has the potential to aid regeneration more effectively. “

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Extracellular vesicles are tiny particles released by healthy cells inside the body. These particles are integral to communication between cells and tissue regeneration. Their natural role in the body has piqued the interest of researchers seeking new ways to repair and grow tissue. Research has revealed that extracellular vesicles are critical for early mineral formation in bones.  Stimulating cells to produce these vesicles could enable scientists to partially control the body’s natural healing process and deliver it to areas where it is most needed. 

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In this study, the researchers were able to extract extracellular vesicles from immature bone cells. When these extracted particles were introduced bone cells that weren't growing, the cells began to mineralize—that is, they began forming more bone. These and other findings confirmed the potential role of extracellular vesicles in tissue engineering. For example, applying vesicles to a phosphate, a chemical crucial for bone and teeth structure, could stimulate a natural healing process, allowing broken or weakened bones to heal and regrow. 

“To date we have some very promising in-vitro evidence that these vesicles work significantly better than the current gold standard,” Cox told Newsweek. “It is early days for the development of our technology. We're hoping to test this in-vivo within the next year and then continue along the translational pathway to human use, which typically takes 5 years plus.”

The researchers are eager to move their work forward in light of the urgency. “Our population is growing in size and we have a lot more people in our communities that are over the age of 65,” explained Cox in a statement. “There are also a lot of people that are pushing the boundaries of what we do in life whether that be resulting in sporting injuries or everyday life injuries.”

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