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What Polymer Developments Could Mean for Regeneration

Updated on December 1, 2016

Scientists searching for ways to accelerate healing and bone regeneration have found new help from an old friend: plastic. A joint study by the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology and its School of Engineering found that a common, commercially available polymer stimulates "growth factor" molecules that direct tissue regeneration.

The undertaking is a sign of the times and of renewed focus from those in the medical field. Before, regenerative science targeted disease and symptom relief; now, polymer experimentation and tactics similar to it show that the regeneration game is changing with an aim toward facilitating the human body’s innate ability to heal itself.

It’s a risky road to take, but it’s certainly one worth exploring.

Regrowing Pains and Gains

At more than 1 million grafts a year in the U.S. alone, bone is the second most commonly transplanted material next to blood. Bone tissue from a donor or from elsewhere in a patient's body serves many purposes. It can replace or strengthen bones and joints, construct tissue around artificial joints, and repair material damaged by injury or disease.

Although growth factor molecules are an oft-used method in regeneration, their application is limited due to the body’s inability to process them quickly. This, in turn, necessitates high dosages of growth factors in order for enough of them to attach to existing tissue and begin regeneration. High molecule dosages yield neurological side effects and can spark unwanted cell growth such as a tumor.

Used at scale, polymers present smaller amounts of a less expensive material to increase patient safety and dramatically reduce the cost of bone treatment. Hypothetically, this could vastly improve outcomes for people with bone loss or weakened tissue due to disease or preventative treatments such as chemotherapy.

The researchers in Glasgow found that the fibronectin — a connective protein that naturally regenerates tissue by clinging to growth factors — is absorbed by the polymer polyethyl acrylate. This substantially increases growth factor acceptance and uses approximately 300 fewer molecules to spark more regeneration.

"This technique opens up the possibility of making growth factor treatments much more effective and much more affordable," professor Manuel Salmeron-Sanchez, the university’s chair of biomedical engineering, told Phys.org. "By coating materials such as hip implants, bone grafts, or spinal cages in a thin layer of this polymer, we can encourage bone regeneration targeted on the areas where they’re required."

Matthew Dalby, professor of cell engineering, added: "The ease in which the polymer can be used to do something very biologically complex is extraordinary and mimics the way growth factors are used naturally in the body."

Where We Go From Here

Bone regeneration could be just the start. The researchers believe this is a simple, easily translatable technology that could unlock the potential of medical growth factors, lower treatment costs, and make the procedure more accessible.

The ability to harness and control growth factor uptake doesn’t just open the door to additional regeneration therapies; it ups the likelihood of successful bone transplants and other similar procedures.

This report is yet another piece of evidence that regeneration science is for real — that medicine is shifting from disease control to unleashing the body's capacity for self-restoration.

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