Nina Tandon is CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, a biotech company set up in 2012 to bio-engineer bone tissue replacements.
Why do we need to grow bones?
At the moment, the only way to get bone for grafts is to cut it out of a human. If you need a piece of bone for, say, your ankle, they’ll cut it out of your hip. There are several million of these bone-grafting procedures done every year worldwide. The idea is to grow bone from a patient’s own cells so they won’t need that second surgery and so the implanted bone won’t be immunologically rejected.
How would you do this?
First, we’ll take a CT scan to get the 3D structure of a patient’s bone and use a high-precision machine to carve a decellularised bovine bone into the required shape. Then we’ll take fat tissue from a patient and extract stem cells from it. We combine the stem cells with the piece of carved bone and put it into a bioreactor [a vessel that supports tissue growth outside of the body]. That’s where the magic happens – after three weeks in the bioreactor we have a piece of bone ready for implantation. We’re working in pigs at the moment but will use the same principle for humans.
Why pigs? Don’t these things usually start in mice?
Pigs are a good fit for the bone we’re working on. We wanted a strong proof of concept so chose the most difficult bone in the head – the temporomandibular joint for the jaw. Pigs are great because they’ve got a very similar sized head to humans and use the bone in a similar way, in a kind of circular chewing motion.
And, erm, what does your lab smell like?
Ha! No we don’t keep the pigs in the lab. They’re kept in a facility offsite.
How soon will the technology be available for humans?
The science is getting really close. We’re about to start a second, larger study in pigs and are doing work in preparation for human clinical trials with the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]. We are also planning small-scale implantations in humans in the next year and a half. So pretty soon hopefully!
You and your co-founder Sarindr Bhumiratana both did your PhDs in growing many types of tissue. Why did you choose bone?
As a small startup we have to think a little differently from academia. We chose to push forward on an application that was closest to reaching people.
You worked as a healthcare business consultant after your PhD and did an MBA during your post-doc. It’s an unconventional route for a laboratory scientist, no?
I’ve been walking that line between the intellectual freedom you get in academia and the practical applications that you get in industry. I was really drawn to the wider world that I perceived as affecting my little work in the lab.
I highly recommend for any academics to spend time in industry and maybe for some people in the workplace to dip their toes into scholarly work, too. I think both have so much to offer. I’ve had wonderful experiences that have really helped me.
Any messages for aspiring science entrepreneurs out there?
Google ‘DIY bio’ and your city name: you’ll find community-based laboratories or bio-hacking meet ups. Look at the disruptive effects from garage-start-ups during the technology revolution – HP, Amazon, Google. Biology has the potential to be just as disruptive. Now is the time for the biology revolution so, whether or not you have a science degree, you should get involved!