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Experts pioneer 'DIY' stem-cell treatment for broken bones

A pioneering new way of mending damaged bones is being pioneered by researchers in Edinburgh. Scientists are experimenting with using a patient's own stem cells – the body's master cells – to repair bone and cartilage.

It is hoped the technique will eventually be used to help patients with serious conditions such as osteoarthritis. The method could also be used to treat accident victims whose bones have been shattered beyond repair.

Edinburgh University hopes to start trials in patients within two years, with £1.4 million in funding announced yesterday.

The method being developed involves using a "bioactive scaffold" to protect the stem cells and stimulate their growth into bone or cartilage once they are placed in the affected area.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into different kinds of cells, including bone. The Edinburgh team's "scaffold" is made of a rigid mesh structure which is coated or impregnated with a drug to help cell growth. While initial tests have proved successful, the technique has yet to be used in patients.

Scientists have known for nearly a decade how to create the right chemical conditions to encourage stems cells from a patient's bone marrow to change into bone and cartilage cells. The scaffold being developed by the Edinburgh team will now help these cells grow in the body. Dr Brendon Noble, from the university's centre for regenerative medicine, said: "This is a novel approach in treating damaged bones and cartilage.

"The aim is to translate the knowledge we have gained from bone biology studies into tangible treatments for patients." The research will be led by Hamish Simpson, professor of orthopaedics and trauma, with the hope of eventually testing the treatment in around 30 patients initially.

The work is being funded by the UK Stem Cell Foundation, the Medical Research Council and Scottish Enterprise. As well as using stem cells derived from bone marrow, the researchers also want to culture bone-forming cells derived from blood. This would mean that the cells could be extracted from patients without the need for surgery. Using a patient's own stem cells also means that they are unlikely to be rejected. Dr Anna Krassowska, research manager for the UK Stem Cell Foundation, said: "In the UK, hip fractures kill 14,000 elderly people every year – more than many cancers. Also, the worldwide market for orthopaedic devices alone represents some $17 billion (£8.7 billion).

"This research has the potential not only to impact on a significant number of people's lives, but to open up one of the largest stem-cell markets in the industry." Jane Tadman, spokeswoman for the Arthritis Research Campaign, said the research was "very interesting".

She added: "There are currently no effective treatments for osteoarthritis. If this research is successful, it has the potential to be highly significant for patients and to lead to good clinical results."

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