‘Bone in a dish’ research could help cancer patients

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A team at OHSU engineered a material that acts like real bone

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have developed a material that resembles human bones more closely than ever before. The findings could one day help people suffering from bone cancer and bone injuries.

The research started about two years ago. In early efforts, it took up to a month to grow a tiny “bone in a dish.” Now they can do it in about 12 hours, but they hope to make it even faster, according to Luiz Bertassoni, assistant professor in the OHSU School of Dentistry. Bertassoni and fellow researchers at the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center (CEDAR) in the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute published their findings this month in the journal Nature Communications.

To make the bone-like material, researchers mix human stem cells with collagen. The collagen proteins link and form a gel. Then they add calcium phosphate, which is what makes the material look like bone, according to Bertassoni. When it’s all finished, the bone cells are complete with nerves and blood cells.

Bertassoni tells KOIN 6 his team is looking at multiple uses for the findings. They can use it to help grow or regenerate bone for patients. It can also be used to screen and research potential drugs.

“Because we don’t have to take a piece of bone from a patient to study how drugs work or how diseases will interact with bone, we can actually do that in the lab much more easily,” he said.

Researchers also hope to explore how diseases progress, particularly metastatic tumors in bone.

“We’re particularly interested in a couple of cancers, especially prostate cancer that metastasizes into bone quite frequently, and also bone marrow cancers, leukemia,” Bertassoni said. “So we’re using this to understand how these cancers essentially initiate and grow and how to develop better model systems to understand or how to develop better drugs for these types of cancers.”

It could still take a while before the discovery benefits patients directly, though.

“The technology itself is not too far from being used in terms of what we need to understand before we can actually use it in the patients. The real question is the regulatory hurdles we have to clear,” Bertassoni said. “The FDA at the moment doesn’t necessarily allow for stem cell delivery based treatments such as the ones that we developed in the lab.”

Now the team at OHSU is working with the Food and Drug Administration to get the material cleared for use in humans.

“Hopefully it won’t take too long,” Bertassoni said.

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