Science and Tech: Cheap Polymers To Stimulate Growth Factors


No, that doesn’t mean plastic will make us all taller. It is far more important than that.

Biomedical engineers from the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology found that a cheap, commercially produced polymer could stimulate so-called ‘growth factors’. Contrary to what you might believe from their name, these molecules don’t make us taller but support regeneration in the body. The findings published in Science Advances on the 27th of August is crucial for medical issues concerning the bone, such as spinal regeneration, orthopaedic surgeries, or bone grafts.

Growth factor molecules like BMP-2 are already in use. However, they break down quickly meaning high quantities are necessary for treatment, which increases negative side effects. These can be as harmful as neurological impairment and tumours, which evidently limits the effectivity and application of treatment. Researchers found that the polymer polyethyl acrylate allows the growth factor to, as Professor Mathew Dalby puts it, “act as it does normally within the body”. Therefore, the dosage of the growth factor can be up to 300 times lower than in previous treatment whilst maintaining similar efficacy.

This is so incredible because it means that the side-effects of current treatments could be reduced enormously and the risks immensely depleted. Because the polymer is cheap and commercially-produced, it means that the treatment could also be cheaper and thus potentially more widely available.

Following blood, bone is the most commonly grafted material in medicine. Consequently, the possible applications of these findings are incredibly widespread and make them even more profound. They could be used as treatment from injuries suffered following a car crash, to patients suffering bone loss due to cancer treatment.

Current research was funded by the European Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council, and the Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship programme. Hoping for more funding to explore further possibilities, researchers are aiming to begin human trials in 5 years. Who knows, before long these findings could be a substantial part of regular treatment and benefit us all.

[Kirsty Campbell]

Image – University of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology

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