December 1, 2004

Why the Vegetarian’s Delight, Taken Internally, Could Beef Up the Treatment of Broken Bones

IT is the vegetarian food favourite that fills meat lovers with dread.

However tofu could become a staple in the medical world, helping to mend bones instead.

Doctors have found that the soya product can be turned into "scaffolding", which not only fills the gaps between broken bones but encourages the bone to grow and heal as the soya disintegrates.

Now the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) has invested (pounds) 149,000 in research to explore its potential further.

Dr Matteo Santin of the University of Brighton, who is working on the project, said clinical trials in human patients could take place as early as next year.

It is hoped the tofu bone filler could be used in car crash victims who need major reconstructive surgery. Dentists could also use it in patients with severe gum infections that have spread to the bone that supports the teeth.

The potential for the biomaterial to be adapted for other uses, such as in wound dressings, could also be explored.

Dr Santin said the existing materials used as bone filler had a number of drawbacks, including being derived from animal sources, being costly and working slowly.

Dr Santin said: "What we have done is to transform the common tofu, the food you can buy in shops, into a biodegradable plastic. When we started research activity, our goal was to use it to fill gaps in bone related injuries to regenerate the bone.

"In the course of our research we found out that this material can induce the regeneration of bone in a relatively quick manner.

" There are some soya components which are taken up by the (surrounding) tissue during the degradation of the material . . . the products of degradation activate the bone cells to produce new tissue."

It is not the first time soya has been linked to bone health.

Eastern populations with a soya rich diet are known to have a lower incidence of osteoporosis - the condition where bones become brittle and are more liable to fracture.

Dr Santin said they were happy about the Nesta grant, which will help fund further investigations before the move to clinical trials on humans.

He said: "I think there is a need out there and our technology is, from a conceptual point of view, easy to understand."

Mark White, director of invention and innovation at Nesta, said: "We are delighted to be investing in the early stage development of this ground-breaking biomaterial.

"Cheap and simple to manufacture, the tofu-based biomaterial is the first to integrate quickly with a patient's own tissues, and encourage re-growth of the surrounding tissue.

"With Nesta support, we are confident that Matteo and his team will be able to progress the material to a real commercial opportunity."