Story highlights

EpiBone, a New York startup, is developing ways to grow human bone

Process uses stem cells, 3-D printer to produce customized bone grafts

CNN —  

Doctors perform almost a million bone-graft surgeries each year in the United States, and despite many advancements in medicine, the procedure remains surprisingly primitive.

In most cases, surgeons must cut open the patient to harvest a piece of bone, then cut them open again to set the graft in its new home. Or they use bone from a cadaver, which can carry a small risk of disease.

Some young scientists believe they have a better solution.

What if we could engineer a customized human bone in a laboratory, grown in mere weeks from a patient’s own cells? It would reduce the risk of infection and the fear that a patient’s body might reject the transplant.

That’s the vision behind EpiBone, a fledgling medical startup that seeks to revolutionize bone surgery.

“What we’re doing is interesting, because it’s where science fiction meets reality,” says EpiBone CEO Nina Tandon, who co-founded the New York City company with Sarindr Bhumiratana in early 2013. EpiBone claims to be the world’s first company that’s growing living human bones for skeletal reconstruction.

Their startup joins the growing field of regenerative medicine, which is employing such new technologies as 3-D bioprinting to produce living human tissue and bone. Despite some ethical concerns, several companies even hope to engineer complex human organs, suitable for transplants, within a decade or two.

The next frontier in 3-D printing: Human organs

Epibone’s process, which has yet to be tested on humans, works like this:

EpiBone’s scientists take a CT scan to measure the exact shape and size of the bone graft that will be needed. That creates a 3-D digital model, which helps a 3-D printer produce a scaffold, or mold, to house the new bone.

The next step is to extract adult stem cells from a sample of the patient’s fat. The stem cells are put into the scaffold and then placed in a bioreactor – an incubator of sorts – where they regenerate as a personalized piece of bone. This whole process takes about three weeks.

So far, EpiBone has only tested its process on pigs. Tandon is hoping to start clinical trials on humans in the next several years and to bring her startup’s proprietary technology to the market within eight years.

It won’t necessarily be easy. The notion of “printing” human organs and tissue is still new, and no one knows the long-term effects of an EpiBone graft.

But Tandon, who studied biomedical engineering at Columbia University, is optimistic. She loves the idea of looking inward to our own biology, instead of external technologies, to solve medical problems.

“I get really excited about the idea of congenital defects being a thing of the past … no kids born with cranial defects anymore,” she tells CNN. “We’d love to see no one ever need revision surgeries after a knee replacement because their implants will last as long as they do.”