New Frontiers for Regenerative Medicine

BERM Showcases Leading-Edge Adult Stem-Cell Research

 

Researcher Susan Bellis in the lab
UAB researcher Susan Bellis, Ph.D., is trying to create a bone-graft substitute with adult stem cells that would give patients and physicians a safer and less expensive alternative to bone grafts.

Imagine being in a car wreck and having part of your jawbone chip away during the accident. In some cases, doctors can repair the bone by performing an autologous bone graft, a procedure that replaces the missing bone with healthy bone taken from another part of your body.

But what if a synthetic material that simulated the formation of new bone could be used to replace the missing bone? UAB researcher Susan Bellis, Ph.D., is trying to create a bone-graft substitute with adult stem cells that would give patients and physicians a safer, less expensive alternative to bone grafts.

“Synthetic material is implanted in the place you lost bone, maybe from a fracture that isn’t healing, bone lesion, a congenital defect or cancer,” Bellis says. “That implanted material then would release certain biochemicals that encourage new bone to deposit on that material surface and fill that site with the patient’s own bone. That’s the broad objective of our research.”

Emerging Fields

Bellis’ work is one of many regenerative research projects under way in the BioMatrix Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (BERM) Center at UAB. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine are emerging fields of biomedical research and clinical medicine focused on repair and regeneration of tissues damaged by trauma, injury or disease.

The BERM Center is a collaborative alliance between the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the Center for Metabolic Bone Disease, the Cell Adhesion and Matrix Research Center and the High Resolution Imaging Facility. It was awarded Pilot Center Status in 2006.

Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine encompass diverse fields including biomaterials, developmental biology, cell adhesion, matrix biology, stem cells, immunology, nanotechnology, gene therapy and others, says Timothy Wick, Ph.D., co-director of the BERM Center with Joanne Murphy-Ullrich, Ph.D.

“The BERM Center capitalizes on UAB’s established strengths in matrix biology and emerging strengths in stem cell biology, 3-D cell and tissue culture, nano-structured biomaterials, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” Wick says. “The close interface between biomedical engineering, physics, the basic sciences and the clinical research activities of both the schools of Medicine and Dentistry provide unique opportunities for us to develop an internationally recognized program that will attract faculty, trainees, funding and local development of the biotechnology industry.”

Wick says the current research centers on regenerative tissue for teeth, spinal cord, cartilage, bone, blood vessels and the pancreas.

Significantly Improve Treatment

Bellis’ lab has been working in vitro and some in vivo, too. Their research has shown great promise in using synthetic material made of collagen and hydroxyapatite — two prominent components of native bone.

“These synthetic matrices are a lot like bone in composition, so when they’re placed in the bone the body doesn’t see this as a foreign material; the body sees it as being like bone,” Bellis says. “We’ve shown that when you implant the synthetic material into bone in animal models you get very nice new bone growth directly onto the surfaces of the synthetic matrices. Right now we’re working on modifying these matrices with biochemicals that will attract stem cells to the implant site and then stimulate these stem cells to turn into bone cells.

“We anticipate that this approach will accelerate bone healing,” Bellis says.

Bellis’ research is one example of the impact tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research could have across many health spectrums.

“Tissue engineering has the potential to significantly improve treatment for many acute conditions and chronic diseases for which there are currently inadequate or limited options to reduce mortality, morbidity and to improve the quality of life,” Bellis says. “In our case, if you could actually repair these bone lesions with synthetic material instead of an autologous bone graft, that would be very helpful in the field."



 

This article originally appeared in the UAB Reporter.