Summing up Dr. Cato Laurencin’s accomplishments is no easy task. As an orthopedic surgeon, engineer, and founder of an emerging field of science — regenerative engineering — Laurencin has won numerous prestigious awards, written books, had his work called out as a game-changing scientific achievement and been honored by The White House.
Most of the praise is directed at his work in the previously uncharted territory of regrowing bones, tendons, and ligaments. And for Laurencin and his team, the biggest prize is still ahead: regenerating entire limbs.
This week in San Diego, Laurencin took the main stage at the AAPS Annual Meeting and Exposition to kick off the pharmaceutical conference with a plenary session to explain the complex science behind growing body parts and give a progress report on his research.
To achieve the once unthinkable Laurencin has had to pull together often disparate fields of science including textiles, stem cells, biology, physics, medicine, and engineering.
Along with the help of his team at the University of Connecticut, various grants and funding, and his experience as a shoulder and knee surgeon, Laurencin has also had a bit of luck along the way.
During his speech, Laurencin told the story of how we once meandered down the hall at his university to chat with a colleague — a researcher in the field of advanced materials. The scientist showed him a piece of fiber that broke up in Laurencin’s hand, and Laurencin commented that he wasn’t impressed. Then the scientist gave him a light but sturdy pipe, explaining that it was made with the same material. Astounded, Laurencin quickly saw the potential in the polymer technology for regrowing bones.
How close is he now to regenerating different parts of the body? Here are short answers:
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL): Very Close To Human Trials
After successfully modeling how to regrow an ACL — which about 200,000 Americans injure each year — Laurencin has attempted the procedure in rabbits that he says are “running around and doing well.”
It has also been in one human patient who has had the regrown ACL for three years.
Laurencin says that he is now working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start human trials.
Laurencin’s work regrowing ACLs was named one of the top scientific discoveries to change the world by National Geographic.
Rotator Cuff Tendons: 2-3 Years Until Human Trials
“Your shoulders are much like a rat’s,” Laurencin told the crowd AAPS.
That likeness is why Laurencin and his team have moved their work regenerating rotator cuff tendons from small animal trials to large animal trials and now back to small animals.
Using nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells, Laurencin says that the regrown tendons wrap around the bone naturally and have a cell structure that’s stronger than a tendon repaired with traditional surgical methods.
“We are continuing to scale this up and hope to have it in people in two to three years,” he said.
Regrowing A Knee: 7 Years
Regrowing A Leg: 15 Years
These areas of research have been blazing a trail that leads to the even bigger goal. Oh, and his team hopes to cure osteoarthritis along the way.
“This is our moonshot,” Laurencin said.
Laurencin is especially excited about what the potential of this work could mean for wounded soldiers. With that goal in mind, he has created a project called the Hartford Engineering a Limb Project that brings together bioengineers, surgeons, material scientists and developmental biologists to push the research forward.
“When we first started talking about bones, they said it is impossible, but now people know we can do it. We can regenerate a limb,” he said.