Do not let Dr. Shai Meretzki’s photograph mislead you: Meretzki, who has both a PhD and Ms.c in Biotechnology from the Technion and the Weizmann Institution of Science, is sitting in his lab, between a skeleton and test tubes containing small bones. However, the time I’ve spent with him made me realize that he is everything but some kind of a mad scientist. On the contrary: Meretzki may well be a genius, but he is also a very down-to-earth, kind person. When I ask him why he is in the ‘bone business’, he just replies: “There are patients in need”.
Bonus BioGroup Ltd. (TASE symbol: BONS) was founded by Dr. Meretzki in 2004, with the goal of creating biological grafts, based on living bone tissue. In other words, the company’s innovative technology enables “Tissue Engineers” to grow human bones from human early mesenchymal cells under laboratory conditions. These bones, created in a rather short period of only 30 days, may be used in bone transplantations. The graft’s unique 3D structure and its spatial configuration enable completing bone deficiency.
Bone transplantations are not all that rare: between 2-2.5 millions of orthopedic and dental bone transplantations are performed worldwide every year. Despite this fact, they are still regarded as very complicated procedures, which involve a great deal of pain and distress to patients. Bonus BioGroup intends to provide a solution to common medical situations, resulting from sudden body trauma (car accident, terror attack), bone degeneration conditions, progressive age diseases, and reconstructions treatments. The company’s solution can also complete bone deficiency caused by fractures, injuries or tumors, as well as other medical situations. Up to 40% of bones transplantations are made of self-bone tissue, harvested from the patient’s own body. These procedures are very painful and require a long healing process.
Bones in a lab
– How did you get the idea of growing human bones in a lab?
Meretzki: “Since my days in Pluristem (Y.S. Meretzki is also the founder of Pluristem Therapeutics Inc, a biotechnology company that develops off-the-shelf cell therapies for a wide range of human diseases), I’ve been working with a team of physicians and scientists. The medical team raised the urging need for live bones grafts. The current medical solutions are insufficient, mainly in terms of the patients’ healing process, and they are also incredibly expensive. We knew we had to find a better solution for this problem the patients are facing”.
In a short while, Bonus BioGroup will start a series of clinical trials in its new bone production facility, located inside the company’s headquarters in Haifa, Israel. Animal preclinical trials have been performed since 2009, and Meretzki shows me photographs of small animals running around with transplanted human bones. The company will collaborate with a few Israeli hospitals, aiming to lead the field of tissue engineering and live bone transplantations.
Bonus BioGroup has recently completed the establishment of the bones production facility, which enables the company to start producing bone grafts of the quality and mass required for its clinical trials, due to commence in the upcoming months (subject to regulatory approvals). The company intends to later further expand the facility to enable production for commercial use.
Meretzki describes the process: the bone graft production process begins outside the facility, in a medical center or a clinic, by taking a blood sample and liposuction of the patient. The samples are then transported to the production center, where mature stem cells (mesenchymal cells) are produced from the fat tissue. After the reproduction and sorting of the stem cells, they are seeded into a scaffold, predesigned for the patient according to their bone deficit.
About a month later, a live human bone graft is formed, ready to be transplanted in the patient whose samples were used. The bone graft is then transferred from the production center to the medical center where the transplant is performed.
“The mesenchymal cells, extracted from the fat tissue, will serve as the primary raw material for the generation of future bone tissue. These cells can be sorted into fat, cartilage or bone tissue, or continue to reproduce as mesenchymal cells. The process combines several types of living autologous human cells, which can cling to the scaffold, create a new tissue and start the process of bone regeneration. The 3D structured bone, consisting of the patient’s own cells, will be produced and tailored for the patient’s own bone deficiency”.
In addition to the company’s bone producing innovative process, it has purchased, about a year ago, the technology of the American company Cellora, enabling it to produce soft and hard tissue within the patient’s body.
– What are the risks of bone graft rejection?
“The fact that the generated bone tissue is grown from the patient’s own body cells enables better and faster graft acceptance. The newly produced bone, which is ready to be implanted within 30 days, matches the patient’s bone deficiency perfectly, therefore minimizing the surgery’s risks”
– Will the Haifa bone production facility supply bones to patients from all over the world?
“The fully grown bone must be transplanted within 12 hours of leaving the facility. Therefore, Bonus BioGroup will establish bone manufacturing centers worldwide, and each of them will have the capacity to produce thousands of bones per year”.
How will Bonus BioGroup price the produced human bone?
“The price for bones of a small size is approximately one thousand dollars. Larger bones may cost several thousands of dollars”.
Still sounds like science fiction? Meretzki and his team are willing to prove that when it comes to innovative medical solutions, as long as there are patients in need, there are no limits to the human mind creativity.
Bonus Bio Group Ltd. is traded in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE: BONS), and currently employs about 20 scientists in its Haifa headquarters. This number is bound to rise as soon as the production facility is opened this summer.
Currently the company is traded at Market Cap of 15 M USD.
The bones substitute global market was estimated at almost $2 Billion in 2010 and is expected to reach more than $3 Billion in the next 4 years.
In the near future, Bonus BioGroup expects to create complex bone tissues, containing both bone tissue and cartilage tissue, in order to replace cartilage tissue or rehabilitation of joints. By 2015, the joints market is estimated to reach $ 32.4 billion.