Repairing damaged or defective bone structures can be quite difficult, painful, and expensive for patients requiring the care. While advances have been made in replacing sections of bone and stimulating natural healing, researchers from Columbia University have developed a bone-growing technique that precisely replicates original structures in the head and face.

One traditional method of facial bone repair involves sourcing material – generally from a section of the patient's leg – before carving it to the desired shape. Not only does this involve extra surgery and hardship, but results may not always come out perfectly. Development of polymer or hydrogel scaffolding for bone replacement treatments have shown success, although this latest approach from Columbia University exceeds all other achievements.

Led by Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, professor of medical sciences at Columbia University, the team discovered that they could build a scaffold of living bone without the use of growth factors that typically stimulate this type of regeneration.

By using 3D images of the weight-bearing jaw defect in a pig derived from CT scans, Vunjak-Novakovic's team was able to construct a custom-designed bioreactor chamber to culture the bone matrix. This resulted in creating a "perfect anatomical fit" that "also provided mechanical function," according to Columbia University's school of engineering and applied science. The pig's stem cells were derived from a small fat sample and used to form bone within the scaffold.

The process took just three weeks to complete – far less than required for 3D-printed implants — and during it, the jaw was shipped across country to test its resiliency and simulate what might happen in a real-world example.

But what surprised the team was the observation of how the patient's body gradually replaced the implanted bone. The lab-grown structure was eventually integrated as a part of the patient's own bone and filled with blood vessels, making it more of an adaptable "instructive template" rather than "definitive implant" for clinical applications, according to the university.

The technology is currently undergoing advanced preclinical trials and planning for FDA-approved clinical trials.

The research findings are published online in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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