Researchers aim to grow bones for patients

The “electro spinning machine” in Dr. Parthasarthy Madurntaka’s lab turns stem cells into a cotton candy-like substance that can be used to grow bones.

Janeal Downs
Contributing Writer

Amidst the test tubes and beakers in Dr. Parthasarthy Madurntaka’s lab in the VCU School of Dentistry, lie hi-tech machines tasked with growing bones from stem cells.

Madurntaka saw the need for cheaper, more convenient and less painful options for bone reconstructions when cancer, birth defects or traumas were involved.

After he finished his dental schooling at VCU in 2012, he  became a faculty member within the School of Dentistry and started his research.

Madurntaka’s goal is revamping  the way bone autografts are performed.

“Right now when you have a defect, they take something called an autografts, auto meaning self and graft is for harvesting,” he said.  “Currently when there is a defect in the bone, specifically in the jaw, bones can be taken from the hip, rips or skull bone. It depends on the size of the defect, and there is only so much you can take.”

Madurntaka said this is not the most effective way because just like blood types can be mismatched, organs can be as well. A patient would have to be medicated so their body does not fight the foreign object.

“The bad thing is that those same mechanisms fight colds as well but if it is focused on fighting the new organ then it can’t adequately do both,” Madurntaka said.

To replace the current methods, Madurntaka is using tissue engineering to create artificial bones.

He plans on taking a small sample of gum tissue, harvesting stem cells from it and forming bones to replace bone loss. This process will be cheaper and less painful than current procedures, Madurntaka said. Though stem cells are usually taken from bone marrow, taking it from the gum tissue allows for easy access and less discomfort for the patient.

Madurntaka said he sees promise in his research but added  there are some complications and unanswered questions.

“The problems I foresee are what happens if you’re a diabetic or smoker because these people don’t heal as well and it isn’t just healthy people who would need or benefit from this,” he said.

Though he is working with bones in the mouth, he said “bones behave similarly across the skeleton” and what is found in the dental field can be applied throughout the body.

“My research is focused on understanding why it doesn’t work, why it doesn’t heal well and try to understand the mechanisms first,” Madurntaka said. “And then try to find what can … help so that they can have normal functioning and normal life.”

His team consists of two students, post-doctoral Catherine Jauregui and bio-medical engineering graduate student Suyog Yoganarasimha.

Yoganarasimha, who began assisting with the research in May, said he learned about the research project when Madurntaka filled in for one of his professors in a course on tissue engineering.

“His teaching impressed me so I met him after and he told me about his interest (with growing bone),” Yoganarasimha said.

Yoganarasimha works with one of the machines, an “electro spinning machine” and nylon 6, or polycaprolactone. Madurntaka said the electro spinning machine is similar to a cotton candy machine in design. It assists with creating housing for the cell and generates scaffolding seen in the body.

Once cells are added, the team adds polycaprolactone, which ultimately makes them become cotton-like to help create something similar to the cell home.

A grant of almost $130,000 from The Center for Clinical Translation Research got Madurntaka’s research off the ground. He said he plans on applying for more grants and funds, partially so he can have more people assist with the research.

Director of the office of sponsored programs Andrea Publow, said research like Madurntaka’s can be funded with grants, contracts or cooperative agreements.

“I think it is a very interesting part of what VCU does,” Publow said.

She said though most research organizations that fund research want to make sure the conductor has a lot of background in the subject, others are focused on giving opportunities to those interested in research. To help train them get in a particular area, Publow said students could apply for funding for a fellowship project as well.

“Without research we cannot progress and we need to give opportunities for the next generation to get involved in research and the earlier it starts the better it is,” Publow said.

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