While the United States currently leads the field in techniques like skin graft therapies, European researchers are the only ones who are looking at ways to promote healing in the skin and bones using a patient's own cells. This clearly has advantages, both clinically because it reduces the risk of tissue rejection or viral infection from a transplant, and financially. The rapidly growing biomaterials market is worth 25 billion euro annually.
Professor Clemens van Blitterwijk of the Dutch company Isotis which is now developing a "tissue engineered living bone equivalent" explained the significance of the new therapies: "The facts are that expectancy of life has quadrupled in three centuries and severe disability increases with age. We need to be able to look after our ageing population. Substitution medicine will be the frontier of medical science in the 21st century because it will be needed as the population ages."
Right now ten million people are walking the earth with one or two artificial hips. But these are bound to need replacing from wear and tear. Tissues on the other hand are dynamic. The mechanical properties of bone tissue have never been mimicked. Bone can be both hard as steel but soft as butter. It takes lots of force to break a bone but to move a tooth in the mouth needs minimum force over a long time, as Dr. van Blitterwijk stated.
Professor Clemens van Blitterwijk's team therefore wants to use patients' own bone tissue in hip transplants. Nearly half of the estimated 750.000 hip replacements and 100.000 revisions to them carried out world-wide every year are performed in the European Union. And, on top of these are around 500.000 primary knee operations and 70.000 revisions to these each year. Treating all these patients is costly.
The European Commission has therefore been funding research on the issue of biomaterials for a number of years and Commission representatives were pleased to hear scientists report successful developments in their work at a meeting in Brussels recently. In particular, four research projects funded under the Commission's Fourth RTD Framework programme have been highlighted.
These included the Professor Clemens van Blitterwijk's team's work on bones and another on biodegradable scaffolds for skin grafts, allowing a person's own skin to grow back over a severe burn or chronic ulcer. "Portions of skin as small as a stamp can be used to cover the whole human body in two weeks", explained Dr. Alessandra Pavesio from FAB in Italy, who presented this work.
Another project is developing membranes for bio-hybrid organs which will eventually be able to replace a human liver or kidney inside the body. The consortium has already filed several patent applications relating for the project's results.
A fourth research group has used biomaterials to develop accurate models of a patient's skull using data from CAT scans, which the surgeons can apply to practise complex operations. More than 125 patients have already been treated using this technology and the project's industrial partners have now filed six patents.
The researchers' company Materialise has grown from a handful of employees in the early 1990s to 110 at present and has offices in several European countries, Asia and the USA. Their software is widely used, not only by surgeons but also by every major car manufacturer for rapid prototyping. The team is also exploiting e-commerce, using the Internet for data transfer and for automatic and confidential cost estimates for the prototype.
Presenting the projects to the press, the European Commissioner for Research, Mr. Philippe Busquin, praised the researchers' work. "They have achieved remarkable results, the successful application of which will have a direct impact on the public and help to improve the quality of life of many European citizens. We want to promote innovation and health and obviously this research meets a need and a real concern."
Mr. Andreta, Director of the European Commission's Competitive and Sustainable Growth programme, echoed the Commissioner's sentiments, thanking the project co-ordinators for their enthusiasm: "This really shows the practical use of our work. Research and technological design in the biomaterials sector is extremely challenging because of the multiple interactions required between materials science, medicine, biology, physics, process engineering, and so on. It is also very risky because it needs heavy investments, advanced technologies and very highly skilled personnel. In this area the return is often very long to come, due to the need for obtaining market approval."
"In the biomaterials sector, many of the actors in Europe are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) which cannot often afford such a risk. These projects however show how young SMEs in this area can be extremely successful, in defending their place in the world market against very strong United States competitors. Only a synergy of national and European efforts within a true European Research Area is able to amount in a technological breakthrough for the benefit of our citizens and can lead to a strong position on the world market", Mr. Andreta concluded.