Columbia University scientists have successfully used human adult stem cells to create parts of the jaw joint in the lab for the first time.
Problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is commonly reported in birth defects, arthritis and injury. Treating the condition using bone grafts, however, is rather difficult due to the complex structure of the joint.
The new study used human stem cells taken from bone marrow.
These were seeded into a tissue scaffold, formed into the precise shape of the human jaw bone by using digital images from a patient.
The cells were then cultured using a specially-designed bioreactor, which was able to infuse the growing tissue with exactly the level of nutrients found during natural bone development.
"The availability of personalized bone grafts engineered from the patient's own stem cells would revolutionize the way we currently treat these defects," the BBC quoted lead author Dr Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic as saying.
According to Dr Vunjak-Novakovic, the new technique could also be applied to other bones in the head and neck, including skull bones and cheek bones, which are similarly difficult to graft.
The option to engineer anatomically pieces of human bone in this way could potentially transform the ability to carry out reconstruction work, for instance following serious injury or cancer treatment.
"We thought the jawbone would be the most rigorous test of our technique; if you can make this, you can make any shape," the expert said.
She stressed that the joint created in the lab was bone only, and did not include other tissue, such as cartilage.
However, the researchers are working on a new method for engineering hybrid grafts including bone and cartilage.
The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.