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Clinical clay creations

Spin out develops new nanoclay gel to transform orthopaedic surgery

Published: 1 June 2021

Southampton Spotlight shines a light on the impact our University is having across the world, through the achievements of the individuals that make up our community.

As the population’s life expectancy improves, the number of people suffering from conditions associated with living longer, in particular musculoskeletal conditions, increases. An already stretched NHS requires solutions and treatments that enable age-related ailments to be treated swiftly and cost effectively, leading to some pioneering technological advances from a University of Southampton spin-out company and a charitable collaboration which is the first of its kind.

Clay is at the heart of spin-out company Renovos’ pioneering advances in the field of orthopaedics.

“Using clays in medical treatments is not new, but the advances being made certainly are innovative,” explained Richard Oreffo, Professor of Musculoskeletal Science, Director of the Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells and Regeneration (CHDSCR) and Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer for regenerative medicine spin-out company, Renovos.

“Clays have been used in tablets to control drug release through their molecule binding properties for many years. These binding properties ensure that molecules stay localised, which is essential in directing the activity of stem cells.”

Renovos is pioneering a new nanoclay gel technology, which has the potential to transform orthopaedic surgery.

“For what is essentially quite a low-tech material, clay is proving to have tremendous potential in this area,” said Richard. “The gel allows significantly lower doses of powerful regenerative therapeutic agents to be precisely delivered by injection and localised to bone sites where needed as well as acting as a scaffold.”

Early trial data demonstrates that nanoclay gel technology contributes to improved bone healing. This consequently offers a step-change improvement in safety, efficacy, and ease of use, as well as reduced adverse events and complications compared with current orthopaedic interventions, such as clinically used Bone Morphogenic Protein, or BMP, therapies

Dr Jonathan Dawson - Renovos co-founder
The nanoclay acts as a drug deliverer and scaffold
The nanoclay acts as a drug deliverer and scaffold

The company’s first product, Renovite® BMP-2 gel, is aimed at orthopaedic applications such as spinal fusion, bone defects and ankle surgery for effective, localised bone formation. The nanoclay gel is injectable, which makes it easy to use and cost-effective due to needing a reduced dose through improved localisation and efficacy.

Rich history

Richard, who has led the CHDSCR since its formation in 2004, explained: “Regenerative medicine develops methods to regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs or tissues harnessing the use of therapeutic stem cells, tissue engineering and the production of artificial organs – ultimately we seek to improve the healing process and therefore relieve pain and return patients to healthy life.”

The CHDSCR is at the forefront of such work. Work in the Bone and Joint Research Group explores using skeletal stem cells and novel biomaterial scaffolds for the treatment of bone damage and disease. It also led to the creation of Renovos.

“The CHDSCR’s ultimate goal is to undertake fundamental research into early development and stem cells together with applied translational research to achieve patient benefit,” said Richard. “We have vibrant and thriving interdisciplinary research programmes together with an innovative Stem Cell MRes programme, outstanding clinical infrastructure and enterprise to help us achieve our aim.”

Within the musculoskeletal arena, it is predicted that the numbers of hip fractures worldwide will increase from 1.7 million in 1990 to 6.3 million in 2050.

One of the major orthopaedic success stories of the last 50 years has been the hip replacement, a common type of surgery where a damaged hip joint is replaced with an artificial one. However, with time a hip replacement can fail, requiring revision.

 “We have been developing approaches, with Professor Douglas Dunlop, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, to tackle the most challenging hip revision clinical cases,” said Richard. “It was in 2014 that we undertook the first skeletal stem cell augmented 3D-printed titanium hip replacement, which, to date, has shown extremely positive clinical outcomes.”

Charity collaboration

In 2020, Renovos secured the first ever investment from Orthopaedic Research UK (ORUK), a charity funding high quality research and education into musculoskeletal science.

“We went through an extremely rigorous and labour-intensive selection process with ORUK to secure the first ever investment of its type from them – £140,000 to support and develop our nanoclay gel technology,” explained Jonathan.

“The charity has very much transformed its funding model in order to provide investment to start-up companies such as ours. As well as it being fantastic to be their first investment, ORUK are extremely well placed to help us establish the networks we need with clinicians and patient groups as we approach clinical trials.”

The newly-launched Ronald Furlong Fund from ORUK was established in memory of the charity’s founder.

Grassroots

Jonathan and Richard are both passionate about engaging with children and young people regarding their research and the power of stem cell technologies.

In 2014, Jonathan led the creation of a public engagement exhibit, Stem Cell Mountain, in partnership with the Winchester Science Centre as part of an ongoing collaboration.

“We wanted to create a fun and engaging way to communicate important research into stem cells to children and families,” explained Jonathan. “Combining the fun of a pinball machine with key biological concepts, Stem Cell Mountain brings to life the complex idea of stem cell potential.”

The BBSRC award-winning hands-on exhibit has engaged festivalgoers at Glastonbury, Bestival and BBC Countryfile Live, as well as at the UK’s top science festivals. It has also proved immensely popular with the 250,000 people who visit the Winchester Science Centre every year, where it resides when not on the road.

Stem Cell Mountain helps users learn about how stem cells could be used to repair our bodies. The exhibit has wheels to turn that send ‘stem cells’ spinning down a giant marble run, and levers to pull to direct them towards various cell-type destinations. It really captures the imagination about what stem cells could make possible

Dr Jonathan Dawson - Renovos co-founder

Future potential

These are exciting times for regenerative medicine, with the potential to harness innovative molecular tools, in-vitro models including organoids, organ-on-a-chip, and 3D bioprinting, and to explore new approaches such as artificial intelligence to address a variety of unmet critical medical needs.

Many of these areas are a focus of research across various tissue types within the CHDSCR.

Richard concluded: “Within the translational enterprise space, a key step within Renovos will be to deliver on the promise of regenerative medicine. This will involve developing additional nanoclay platforms to localise stem cells and appropriate cues, or growth factors, delivered and presented at physiological doses within the right local microenvironment. This will create regenerative medicine products with improved safety and performance that will enhance tissue regeneration.

“The future is bright within regenerative medicine and the key now will be to deliver on the promise to translate our understanding of tissue regeneration and move through concept to reality.”

Read more research stories in Re:action, the University’s research and enterprise magazine.

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