No More Bones to Pick
As I have observed many times, stem cell therapies hold enormous promise for curing disease and repairing tissue. Stem cell science even has the potential to stop or reverse the aging process – at some point. The companies like BioTime Inc. (AMEX:BTIM) that I have recommended to the subscribers of the Breakthrough Technology Alert are expanding their ability to grow the tissues of the human body from their stem cell lines.
While stem cells clearly have the capacity to create transformational therapies, the short-run challenge is to solve the details for particular therapies. Fortunately, that challenge is being met. Astonishing new therapies are racing forward. The repair of damaged tissues and the complete replacement of failed organs with new ones grown from compatible stem cells are on a rapidly approaching horizon. And they’re coming not a moment too soon.
One of the new medical fronts being opened is in the regeneration of damaged bone. By weight, human bone is an amazing material, stronger than steel. It is not only strong, but also somewhat flexible. Bone has an internal structure that takes maximum advantage of the strength of its primary component, calcium phosphate.
The unique features of human bone structure have long spawned attempts at biomimetics, which means “mimicking life.” For example, the description of the internal structure of the head of the thighbone in the 1850s by German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer influenced architecture. One example is the lattice structure of the Eiffel Tower.
Unlike steel structures, bone has one enormous advantage. It is capable of self-repair when damaged. As we age, however, we tend to lose bone density and strength. As we age, we are less able to heal damaged bone. In a sense, you could say the problem is not so much that we age; it is that we lose the ability to regrow. In large part, this is due to the reduction in endogenous stem cells needed to repair the damaged bone. Another part of the problem is a dearth of available growth factors that promote healing in older people. These molecules send signals to cells, telling them to grow and repair damaged bone.
The current standard of care for damaged bone repair uses bone grafts donated from a different part of the patient’s body. The donor bone is usually taken from the hip, or from one of the leg bones. Of course, this procedure has the disadvantage of creating a second surgery site on the body, along with all of the attendant expenses and risks of complication and infection.
A recent study found that after a year, 10% of the patients that have this autograft harvest procedure had clinically significant pain at the donor site. An additional 44% reported some kind of pain at the donor site. Prior to the harvesting procedure, the site was, of course, healthy. In many bone repair procedures, however, these grafts are necessary. A material is required to fill the void in the damaged bone, which also provides an environment for the bone to heal.
But one of the most promising new regenerative technologies would eliminate the need for those bone grafts. This technology utilizes a kind of bioactive “mortar” that can be applied to the site of a bone injury. Once applied, the mortar mimics the regenerative behavior of healthy bone mass, thereby repairing the injured site. Think of how a mason slaps mortar between bricks and you get a rough idea of how effective this technology could be. Clinical trials of this process show that it is at least as effective as bone grafts. However, the data also showed fewer infections, fewer serious adverse events and fewer surgical complications.
With all potential applications taken into account, this breakthrough product could represent an enormously profitable opportunity for the small biotech company that developed it. In the United States alone, total bone grafting procedures are a $4 billion annual market. Meanwhile, this same product offers promise for treating sports injuries like rotator cuff repairs and chronic tendon problems like tennis elbow or plantar fasciitis.
With the huge demographic shift caused by the baby boomer generation’s aging, “regenerative therapies” will become an enormous business opportunity. Companies and investors that develop these therapies will strike gold.
The Great Age of Regenerative Medicine is upon us. Are you ready?