Lab-grown bone could change the way we test new medical treatments

  • University of Sheffield engineers have developed a technology that could change the way we test new medical treatments to repair human organs and bone tissue
  • New technology uses mini scaffolding - three dimensional structures capable of growing human tissue in a lab
  • Process uses a new bone-on-a-chip system that could revolutionise pharmaceutical pre-clinical testing
  • Development could reduce the number of animal models used in research

An illustration of the bone-on-a-chip system

A new technology that could be used to test new treatments for human organs and bone tissue - all whilst reducing the need for animal research - has been developed by engineers at the University of Sheffield.

The study, led by researchers from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Insigneo Institute for in silico Medicine, along with collaborators from Universitat Ramon Llull, Spain, developed a bone-on-a-chip device containing mini scaffolding that can be used to grow human bone tissue in the laboratory.

In a new paper published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, the researchers demonstrate how the bone-on-a-chip - a tiny chip containing living cells - can be used to grow bone tissue which can then be used to test new potential treatments for diseased or damaged bones.

Testing new medicines usually requires extensive in vivo testing involving animal models. However, the new approach developed by the University of Sheffield-led team has been developed in vitro - entirely in the laboratory - and reduces the need to use animals in research.

The field of organ-on-a-chip aims to create small devices that contain miniature versions of organs such as bone, liver or lungs in the laboratory. By testing new medicines on small versions of human organs rather than in animal models, the hope is that there will be a higher success rate of finding ones that work in humans.

The aim is that one day, the device developed by the Sheffield team could be connected to other organ-on-a-chip devices - such as the liver, heart, lungs, etc - to create a human-on-a-chip that would remove the need for animal research in the development of new medical treatments entirely.

In vitro testing of new treatments is normally done on cells grown on flat, two-dimensional surfaces. However, the team of researchers has created three-dimensional scaffold structures within their bone-on-a-chip that better resembles real bone.

The three-dimensional structures are developed using a material known as a polymerised high internal phase emulsion (polyHIPE) using a technique called emulsion templating. An emulsion is a mixture of oil and water which doesn’t separate - like mayonnaise or milk. A polyHIPE is made using an oil that solidifies under ultraviolet light to create a plastic material which contains millions of tiny interconnected holes where the water used to be. These highly porous materials form a scaffold that helps cells create new bone tissue in 3D.

Having produced the three dimensional scaffolds, the team inserted them into a mini bioreactor to create the bone-on-a-chip device and used in vitro techniques to assess its potential to reproducibly grow human bone tissue from stem cells.

In the new paper, the researchers present findings demonstrating that organ-on-a-chip technologies have the potential to revolutionise pharmaceutical pre-clinical testing by increasing throughput whilst minimising financial and ethical concerns associated with animal research.

Dr Frederik Claeyssens, Reader in Biomaterials from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said: “The introduction of microfluidic channels in a porous material allows us to mimic the natural 3D environment of cells better than in standard microfluidics.

“This is, in my view, a great enabling technology to build complex 3D tissues - or organs-on-a-chip - as testing platforms for pharmaceutical testing.

“These platforms have the potential to reduce the time and effort required for, and also reduce the use of animal models for preclinical drug testing.”

To access the paper, visit:

Additional information

Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield

Insigneo Institute for in silico Medicine

The Insigneo Institute for in silico Medicine is a collaborative initiative between the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is a multidisciplinary collaboration between over 150 academics and clinicians to develop computer simulations of the human body and its disease processes that can be used directly in clinical practice to improve diagnosis and treatment.

In silico medicine (also known as "computational medicine") is the application of in silico research to problems involving health and medicine. It is the direct use of computer simulation in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease. More specifically, in silico medicine is characterised by modelling, simulation, and visualisation of biological and medical processes in computers with the goal of simulating real biological processes in a virtual environment. This is almost certainly the most sophisticated application of computing technology in healthcare, and Sheffield has become the UK’s principal centre for this work. Insigneo performs cutting-edge research in areas of fundamental and applied biomedical modelling, imaging and informatics, as it pursues the research agenda of the Virtual Physiological Human initiative.

The Institute’s work will bring about a transformational change in healthcare through multidisciplinary collaborations across many strategic areas, which will include personalised diagnosis and treatment and improvements in independent, active and healthy ageing. For more information please visit: or contact

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