AGROUP of medical pioneers has created a revolutionary organic building material that will transform the treatment of bone and cartilage disease and bring hundreds of millions worth of business to Ireland.
Professor Fergal O'Brien, who is the head of Bioengineering and Regenerative Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, has developed an organic bio-foam patch that regenerates bones and cartilage.
The sponge-like filler material is applied to the damaged area. And once in place, it absorbs blood and instructs the resident stem cells to form into either new bone or cartilage.
To give an idea of how big the discovery is: the new material can repair the worst ravages of arthritis, fix fractures that won't knit together properly and restore sight to those who have suffered damage to the retina, which is the rubbery see-through cartilage-like membrane that protects the front of the eye.
Up until now, damaged cartilage was almost impossible to repair. And cartilage injuries have ended many a stellar sports career.
Prof O'Brien takes up the story: "What we have developed is a bio-material that can go into the body to try and regenerate damaged or degenerated tissues.
"The material is designed in such a way that it recruits its own cells, particularly the body's own stem cells, and the material automatically provides the cues to the stem cells to form bone. We're hoping to have the bone-grafting technology in patients by early 2014 and the cartilage repair technology a year later. We hope it will delay the need for hip replacements and knee replacements.
"We're working with orthopaedic surgeons to make sure the material can be delivered in as non-invasive way as possible through keyhole surgery. At the moment, what typically happens with people who have massive voids or defects in their bones is the surgeons go in and take bone from the person themselves from a donor site usually on the hip where they have got some spare bone."
Prof O'Brien points out that this procedure "is very painful", involves more surgery and is ultimately more expensive
"We're trying to cut down the operative procedure to one rather than two," added Prof O'Brien.
Research on the bone product started in 2005 and, to date, Enterprise Ireland has invested over €1m.
The bone repair product, Hydroxy Coll, is just about to hit the market with the cartilage product, Chondro Coll, due to come on stream within two years.
Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland has set up a company Surga Coll Technologies, which is based in Bishopstown Co Cork, to exploit the technology. Speaking of the revolutionary bone and cartilage repair products, CEO of Surga Coll Technologies Dr John Gleeson says: "We have been working very closely with the UCD Veterinary School. With the cartilage product for corneal and cartridge repairs the data results (field tests) have surpassed all our expectations.
"The Hydroxy Coll material acts as a scaffold and is made of the same building blocks as the body.
"It feels like a dry sponge but very flexible and when it is wet it can be moulded and shaped. We mix blood – which is rich in regenerative cells – and it rapidly soaks up.
"There are several layers – one instructs the cells to form bone cells and another layer instructs cells to form cartilage and after the tissue has been created the scaffold dissolves and is re-absorbed back into the body," explains Dr Gleeson.
During a recent clinical trial the research team treated a racehorse in Co Meath who had a badly disfigured jaw and severe thinning of the bone due to a huge fluid filled cyst.
In severe pain, the horse had difficulty eating. However, within months of treatment the horse's jaw bone was totally regenerated and she is now cured.