Gravitational wave-hunting technology used to generate bone



Scientists have designed technology to grow 3D bone in the lab–not with chemicals or drugs, but with vibration. The team, from the University of the West of Scotland (Paisley, Scotland) and the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, Scotland), has combined stem cell expertise with precision measurement tools used in the hunt for gravitational waves to design new tech which could revolutionise bone grafting therapies. The tech was on display at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition (4-10 July 2016; London, UK).

It is hoped that the technique will allow scientists to grow new pieces of bone from a patient’s own stem cells—avoiding the need for painful surgery to remove bone samples from other parts of the body, and without the risk of rejection of the new tissue.

According to a press release, this is a cleaner way of growing bones for grafting, and avoids using bone forming chemicals or high doses of growth factors like BMP2.

The team uses tiny high frequency vibration, called ‘nanokicking’, to trigger stem cells into becoming bone producing cells. These could then be implanted where needed to fuse with existing bone and heal bone damage or fractures.

The vibrations needed to kick the cells into action are remarkably small, shaking the cells by nanometres. To measure movements this small the team has used a scaled-down version of the same laser technology that is used to hunt for gravitational waves.

The team behind the tech is led by Matt Dalby (University of Glasglow) and Stuart Reid (University of West Scotland). Matt Dalby, says, “The bioreactor we have designed brings together fields of research from different ends of the spectrum: stem cell research on the building blocks of our bodies, to technology used to detect the ripples in space and time caused by the collisions of massive objects. It is amazing that technology developed to look for gravitational waves has a down-to-earth application in revolutionising bone treatments for cleaner, safer and more effective therapy.”

The team are able to grow 3D bone from ‘multi-potent’ stem cells. These cells already contain the genetic potential to grow into bone, and ‘nanokicking’ can unlock this.

Reid adds, “The scale of movement that triggers the cells to transform is so small it would be the same as ‘sliding a single sheet of paper in and out from under a football on a table’.”

Scientists at the University of Glasgow realised that this kind of physical stimulation might trigger bone growth, due to bones’ particular responsiveness to pressure. Research into bone loading gave the scientists a clue that this kind of process might help bone growth.

The team aim to test their lab-grown bone in people within three years, and believe that therapy could be available in 10 years. Further down the line it may even be possible to ‘nanokick’ patients directly, to heal fractures without surgery.

The researchers are commercialising the bioreactor they have designed to make it available to other scientists and bone researchers. According to the press release, this tech could have an important role in drug discovery, and has also shown promise in other areas of research such as bone cancer. Early results suggest that nanokicking could be used to identify therapeutics which slow down fast-growing bone cancers.