Breakthroughs for better bones
A research group at RCSI is developing an implantable mixture of two materials naturally found in bone – collagen and hydroxyapatite – with a microstructure that encourages the body to grow bone tissue
YOU PROBABLY don’t spend too much of the day thinking about your skeleton – unless something goes wrong. If bone gets seriously damaged through injury or disease, it can sometimes mean getting a bone graft to help the repair.
Bone grafts and substitutes come in many flavours, but Prof Fergal O’Brien and his tissue engineering research group at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have come up with a new twist: an implantable mixture of two materials naturally found in bone – collagen and hydroxyapatite – with a microstructure that encourages the body to grow bone tissue.
The technology, HydroxyColl, has now been licensed to spin-out SurgaColl Technologies for commercialisation, but it took a while to get to this point.
It all started when O’Brien, a native of Rosemount in Co Westmeath, was an undergraduate in engineering at Trinity College Dublin and he took an interest in the mechanical properties of bone.
“Other people in my class were doing projects looking at how metal parts break, but I started working on how bones break,” he recalls.
That led to a PhD on the biomechanical properties of bone in osteoporosis, where bones can become fragile and susceptible to fracture. Then O’Brien moved to Boston on a Fulbright scholarship to work at Harvard and MIT in the area of tissue engineering, which seeks to encourage repair in the body after damage.
While in Boston, O’Brien attended human anatomy classes and, to his surprise, engineering lecturers were teaching the medical students.
“For me it was a moment,” he says. “I began to think maybe if I do go back to Ireland and take an academic position it doesn’t have to be in the engineering school.”
O’Brien did return to Ireland, and it wasn’t to an engineering school: he started as a lecturer in the department of anatomy at RCSI.
A President of Ireland Young Researcher Award in 2004 through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) meant he could set up a tissue engineering lab and he started to look at how three-dimensional collagen scaffolds could be used in bone grafting.
Part of the lab’s work focused on fundamental “blue-sky” research, and his team characterised the properties of the collagen scaffolds and their ability to encourage bone growth, but there was something missing.
The material needed more support, so O’Brien got funding from Enterprise Ireland to explore how adding hydroxyapatite, a stiffer material naturally present in bone, could work.