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These tiny pearls are the beginnings of fully functional human cartilage.
Scientists at New York's Columbia University have grown them using stem cells derived from human bone marrow.
Cartilage doesn't contain blood vessels or nerves and it doesn't heal once damaged.
So, it has to be replaced with existing tissue taken from another part of the body or from another person.
Postdoctoral fellow, Sarindr Bhumiratana says past efforts to produce cartilage in the lab - from young animal cells - resulted in tissue that was often too weak for practical use in humans.
So, he and his colleagues studied how the human body grows and develops cartilage and attempted to mimic the process in their lab:
"These stem cells ... we know that it can turn into bone, it can turn into cartilage, it can turn into fat. So we take them and we use this ... we call it fabrication technique ... which is based on the developmental process where the stem cells condense. This is ... we base everything we do in the lab to what happens during development when we were a fetus or when we were young."
The experiment worked—and the technology is simple and efficient, according to Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a professor of biomechanical engineering.
She says the next step is to customise the process for individual patients by using specialized molds:
"We take images of the patient, normal medical images, and then we make these three dimensional files. We use them to make scaffold and then we grow a piece that is with great precision mimicking what you are replacing. This is the kind of technology that should, in principle, make it possible to regenerate any piece of bone interfaced with cartilage in the body. So, we do have technology. We do understand underlying principles."
But the science isn't quite ready to be implemented - the next phase will test the long-term effects of the stem cell-grown cartilage to see how the tissue holds up over time. — Reuters