Among facial reconstruction junkies, bone loss in the jaw is notoriously difficult to restore. Fortunately, bioengineers may have a way to overcome this problem through the use of customized graft implants based on a recipient’s own tissue. The use of these personalized bone tissue grafts helps improve the integration of artificial grafts and has so far been tested successfully on pigs.
Various types of birth defects, medical conditions, and physical injuries can cause serious and hard-to-repair bone deformities in the face and jaw. Replacing a bone requires a high level of precision since the graft has to match the contours and features of the face in order to prevent too much distortion. Grafts for the jaw bone feature the additional complication of needing to withstand the forces of chewing.
The current approach for facial reconstruction is to replace missing bone with metal, bone putty, or a graft taken from the patient’s own body. This has its own set of hurdles since, although the safest option, taking a graft means losing bone elsewhere and it isn’t always easy to get a piece of bone large enough to get carved in to a graft. The approach that the bioengineers have developed uses synthetic scaffolds to enhance new bone growth—a process that previously has not turned out as effective as would be preferred.
What the researchers actually did during their test was replace part of a pig’s jawbone with a bone matrix to serve as a scaffold. Each part of the scaffold was individually shaped to fit in to its section of the jaw.
The scaffold was then seeded with the pigs’ stem cells and put into a bioreactor for three weeks to create grafts which were then implanted. It was found that the transplanted grafts ended up seamlessly integrating into the jaw, promoted new bone growth, and even developed to the point where it could withstand chewing forces.
Although it has only been tested on just over a dozen pigs, the progress is promising and was the result of collaborations between researchers from four different institutes. Bone loss anywhere in the body, but particularly in the jaws, can be a huge quality of life impediment for people.
Any discoveries that could enhance this area of facial reconstruction pose promise for the future and hopefully the next stage of research will further support the validity of this approach.
“Bioengineers grow living bone for facial reconstruction,” NIH web site, August 4, 2016; https://www.nibib.nih.gov/news-events/newsroom/bioengineers-grow-living-bone-facial-reconstruction, last accessed August 5, 2016.