Nigel Ellway meets a couple of committed contributors to a humanitarian cause
It was Glasgow, it was raining, and I was having one of those conversations that you just have to tell someone about.
Over coffee in the Joseph Black Building at Glasgow University I was learning about how someone injured by a landmine or IED could have their shattered or missing bone repaired and replaced by a 3D printed matrix infused with ‘nanokicked’ cells taken from donor bone-marrow or fat.
“We know it works” said Professor of Cell Engineering Matthew Dalby, “We’ve tried it in a Munsterlander dog and within six weeks she was up and running around on her repaired leg.”
“By 2021 we’ll have part of the technology in human trial,” added Professor Manuel Salmeron-Sanchez, Chair of Biomedical Engineering. “we are preforming veterinary trials and working towards human trials.”
“We have to be realistic,” he continued “this isn’t about replacing whole limbs – it’s about ensuring there is enough bone to be able to comfortably attach a prosthetic. Our aim is to improve the quality of life for victims.”
The brace of professors were hugely enthusiastic about both the science behind their work – much of which went straight over my head – and the humanitarian impact that their work would make. This technology has the potential to rebuild people’s lives around the world and it was this specific outcome that animated them both, I felt.
“This project is unlike anything we’ve done before,” said Matthew “it is more than just academic research for academia’s sake.” Visiting Cambodia over two years ago with Find A Better Way gave us a real understanding of the problems faced by land-mine survivors and how we could make a huge contribution”.
The two professors had been gathering their base data and working on their separate technologies for about six years – Manuel on creating a 3D printed bone matrix that will eventually dissolve once the real bone has grown back, and Matthew on creating the cells which will transform themselves into bone. As with all research new unexpected things emerge – ‘nanokicking’ was one new term I hadn’t come across and that was because it uses a technique developed originally to measure gravitational waves!
“So how did you get involved with Find A Better Way?” I asked.
“We wrote the project funding brief specifically to challenge us, and FABW was enthusiastic in supporting that – there is a very human relationship between our team and theirs. We are both learning
something new and unexpected from this work and from our relationship with FABW – Lou McGrath is particularly supportive and that means a great deal.” The pair of professors became very serious. “This is a technology that can be easily transported and delivered in impacted countries, FABW has given us the opportunity to do some real good for human kind and we are very grateful for that.”
I asked them what made Find A Better Way was so different.
Well, that question unleashed an even more intense gush of enthusiasm!
“Oh, Find A better Way have been amazing, so unlike many other funding bodies, so inspirational – and we love Sir Bobby Charlton! Even our international team of researchers are engaged and energised about this project because of Sir Bobby and the CEO Lou McGrath’s infectious enthusiasm.” Manuel and Matthew vied with each other for the most ardent approbation.
This little torrent did not surprise me – my first introduction to Find A Better Way was nearly ten years ago when I was setting up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Landmines and Sir Bobby Charlton was creating his ground breaking charity. Sir Bobby’s humanitarian concerns were very clear from the start, and he has used his high profile to excellent effect. Then three years ago I was delighted when the inspirational Lou McGrath OBE, one of the original architects of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines took over as CEO.
Taking a large sip of my now very cold coffee and bringing the two academics gently back to earth I asked where the project could go next.
“Our big challenge is growing enough of the nanokicked cells. It takes over 50 million cells to treat six patients. These cells need to be grown, incubated and stored. Storage is either in frozen state or infused in a kind of gel.” the science speak started again but I was beginning to get the idea “We can then ship the cells and the polymer and print the bone anywhere in the world.” Again the dynamic scientific duo became serious. “To take this forward it has to move out of academia and into the commercial world. It would need an ethical investor to come on board to grow this into a viable enterprise.”
This provided me with an opportunity to contribute something to the discussion. Find A Better Way is one of the founding charity members of a project called the REVIVE Campaign which I created to promote victim assistance and targeting ethical investors to put victim assistance into their range of criteria for investment.
I left Manuel and Matthew with a feeling that here was something that Find A Better Way had been very wise to support with funding.