David Pastorino has an interesting job: Figuring out just how we can regenerate human bone — better, easier, and cheaper. We’re living longer than ever before, he says in a talk at TEDxBarcelona, and that has huge implications for the world’s healthcare systems. In 2013, 12% of the world’s population was over 60, reports the UN, and by 2050, this figure is expected to nearly double, to 21%. As socially pleasant as that notion is, Pastorino says in his talk, it is medically concerning. Aging populations means aging skeletons, and this shows in the medical world, where bone grafting procedures are performed at very high rates and are projected to increase as the number of elderly citizens rise.
As the need for bone grafting procedures grows, the necessity of affordable, efficient and safe treatment options is crucial, Pastorino says. If we value our bones, we have to figure out methods to repair big breaks that can scale, are safe, and that the regular person can afford. He and his colleagues at the Biomaterials, Biomechanics and Tissue Engineering Research Group at Polytechnic University of Catalonia-BarcelonaTech are just one of the groups working to address this problem, but what they’re coming up with is certainly novel.
Our bones are porous things, with 80% of human bone material being “made of nothing,” he says, and this fact is a sort of double-edged sword for researchers like himself. For one, it means that 80% of whatever substance he and his colleagues develop has to be nothing, he jokes, but, two, it makes that last 20% difficult to piece together.
What his team has come up with is an interesting thing — inspired by researchers’ coffee breaks — an injectable calcium-phosphate foam Pastorino likens to the froth on a cappuccino. “What is the sensation you get in your mouth when you drink the foam on the cappuccino?” he asks. “Nothing … 80% of nothing.” Their solution acts as a bone substitute, an injectable cement that mimics bone structure in order to “trick” cells into treating the material like regular bone and triggering natural bone regeneration.
Learn more in Pastorino’s talk: