New innovator: Theracoll

Prof Fergal O'Brien leads a team that has developed a collagen-based scaffold used for bone regeneration

Prof Fergal O'Brien leads a team that has developed a collagen-based scaffold used for bone regeneration


Getting bone and its surrounding tissue to regenerate following a serious trauma such as a major fracture or the removal of a large tumour, has long been a challenge for medical researchers. Now the Tissue Engineering Research Group at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has developed a new technology that can do both.

The multidisciplinary team, led by Prof Fergal O’Brien, has developed TheraColl, a porous, collagen-based scaffold (that looks like a sponge) which is implanted into the bone defect to enhance bone regeneration. It does so by releasing two drugs from micro particles contained within the scaffold that both promote the growth of blood vessels and help repair the bone defect.

“The simultaneous delivery of both growth factors has a synergistic effect leading to an enhanced healing rate in a significantly shorter time,” O’Brien says. “The developing field of tissue engineering aims to regenerate damaged tissues by using cells from the patient combined with highly porous scaffolds that act as templates for tissue regeneration. These scaffolds overcome two problems related to bone tissue regeneration: they enhance blood vessel formation and they increase and accelerate the bone formation process.”

O’Brien, a former Fulbright Scholar, began in-depth research into this field 10 years ago following his return from the US where he had been working in the area of orthopaedic tissue engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. His initial funding came from Science Foundation Ireland.

The project to develop TheraColl into a commercially viable product began in 2008 and has cost approximately €400,000 to date. The project has been supported by Enterprise Ireland and the patent protected technology is now ready for sale. O’Brien says the most likely route to market is through licensing the technology.

While TheraColl is currently focused on bone problems O’Brien says the beauty of the scaffold platform is that it can be applied to the regeneration of other tissues. For example, it also has potential in the area of cartilage and cardiac repair.

“Cartilage is very challenging because it has no vascular structure and no capacity to regenerate,” O’Brien says. “But we can use the scaffold to deliver any number of alternative growth factors depending on the situation. In the case of cartilage this would be of benefit to people with osteoarthritis. In a cardiac setting it could be used to regenerate damaged heart-wall tissue. We can tailor both the type of drugs to be used and the rate at which they are released. This technology draws on the expertise of a number of disciplines from bio-engineering, life sciences and pharmacy as well as surgeons who can tell us what they need in a clinical setting.”