A collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch and the University of Michigan was the first to successfully produce functional artificial bone marrow, paving the way for future research on human reactions to new drugs.
The venture — a joint effort between a University of Michigan biomedical engineering professor and two researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch — took seven years to complete and was funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The project is currently being used as a model to test the human immune system’s response to new drugs.
Joan Nichols, one of the UTMB researchers, said the artificial bone marrow system is a step forward for drug testing because it provides a far more accurate response than tests on bone marrow from mice or rats. She added that further possibilities for potential uses of the artificial bone marrow are endless.
“It will help scientists that design vaccines to treat infections or environmental exposure to chemicals that cause leukemia or other diseases,” Nichols said. “It could even be used to test the immune response to cosmetics or foods.”
For the project, Kotov created a matrix that mimics the tissues that support bone marrow in a human body. Using this matrix, artificially produced bone marrow can live at least six months.
Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella, the other UTMB researcher, created the artificial bone marrow to grow in Kotov’s matrix.
Kotov said that additional uses for the artificial bone marrow include the possibility that it could allow for new research on chemotherapy drugs. Many chemotherapy drugs limit bone marrow function, leaving the body vulnerable to infection. The artificial bone marrow can be used to test these drugs more effectively, Kotov said.
“More thorough and less expensive studies give a better chance that some dangerous side effects can be caught in time,” he said in an e-mail interview. “This is much needed both for patients and pharmaceutical companies.”
Currently the artificial bone marrow can’t be transplanted into humans, but with continued research, bone marrow transplants may be within reach, Nichols said.
Nichols added that the accomplishment is an achievement of teamwork and persistence.
“It took all of us together, and we failed a lot in the first three to four years of our work together, but we always banded together and tried again,” she said.
Kotov said the development is not only an achievement in biomedical research, but it will also help to revitalize the state’s economy.
“We are trying to re-energize the biotechnology sector of economy in Michigan and to bring new ideas to the industry in the difficult economic times,” he said.