Bone tissue engineering bioreactors: a role in the clinic?
Tissue engineered bone grafts have the potential to be used to treat large bone defects due to congenital abnormalities, cancer resections, or traumatic incidents. Recent studies have shown that perfusion bioreactors can be used to generate grafts of clinically relevant sizes and shapes. Despite these scientific and technological successes, there is uncertainty regarding the translational utility of bioreactor-based approaches due to the perceived high costs associated with these procedures. In fact, experiences over the past two decades have demonstrated that the widespread application of cell-based therapies is heavily dependent on the commercial viability. In this article, we directly address the question of whether bioreactors used to create bone grafts have the potential to be implemented in clinical approaches to bone repair and regeneration. We provide a brief review of tissue engineering approaches to bone repair, clinical trials that have employed cell-based methods, and advances in bioreactor technologies over the past two decades. These analyses are combined to provide a perspective on what is missing from the scientific literature that would enable an objective baseline for weighing the benefit of extended in vitro cultivation of cells into functional bone grafts against the cost of additional cultivation. In our estimation, the cost of bioreactor-based bone grafts may range from $10,000 to $15,000, placing it within the range of other widely used cell-based therapies. Therefore, in situations where a clear advantage can be established for engineered grafts comprising patient-specific, autologous cells, engineered bone grafts may be a clinically feasible option.