CEO and Co-founder
“Medical devices are becoming alive,” says Dr. Nina Tandon, Co-founder of Brooklyn-based EpiBone. As a personalized skeletal reconstruction company that grows bone grafts for patients using their own cells, EpiBone is doing the previously unthinkable and creating living bone grafts. For the 900,000 patients who undergo bone-related surgeries each year, the EpiBone team’s mission is to enhance their lives through these personalized, anatomically correct bone grafts—not yet, but soon.
PM360 spoke with Nina about EpiBone’s work in skeletal reconstruction and her vision for the future. This is the epitome of innovation. This is revolutionary. Or as Nina puts it, “This is cool.”
PM360: You started out as an electrical engineer, but in 2013, you co-founded EpiBone with the goal of improving the lives of patients who needed bone grafts by growing personalized bones in the lab. Can you tell us what led to this idea and the founding of your company?
Nina Tandon: EpiBone began in the lab of Dr. Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic at Columbia University, where I worked alongside EpiBone co-founder, Dr. Sarindr Bhumiratana. I was studying neural interfaces, and while I was working on cardiac tissue, he was busy working on studying bone and cartilage.
I also had an interest in business, so when it later became clear that the technology Dr. Bhumiratana had developed a viable commercial pathway, I was excited to bring this work to patients who desperately need an alternative to the current available options. We joined forces and created the company, and it has been a team effort ever since! We’ve definitely learned a great deal about how to grow a science-based business.
Can you talk a bit about the science behind how you and your team are growing bones?
It’s based on the idea of copying from the technology of nature, biomimicry—or as I think about it, borrowing from nature’s living library. Many of our best technologies have been inspired by nature. So, nature is not just awe inspiring, but also technologically inspiring.
Based on that inspiration, how do you grow bones in the lab?
To make bones, we start by taking two things from the patient. First, we take a CT scan image from the patient and we extract the three-dimensional data out of that image that we can turn into XYZ coordinates, which can then be fed into any type of digital fabrication machine—3D printers, micro milling machines, CNC mills and the like. We use that information to create the scaffolding in the exact shape to fit the defect, as well as the casing the scaffold will be housed inside.
The second thing we take from the patient is a small sample of their fat tissue. From that tissue, we extract stem cells and infuse them into the scaffold. From there the graft sufficiently matures in about three weeks, in a system that we call a bioreactor. A bioreactor essentially mimics the human body. It delivers not just the oxygen and nutrients within the tissue, but also important mechanical signals that help the cells grow into living bone.
So, in essence, EpiBone is moving the science and technology far beyond that of metal or plastic medical devices, which can be rejected by the body.
Yes. The focus in the past has been on biocompatibility. But going forward we’re going to think much more about true integration into the body. And, overall, I think the world is moving in the direction of better integration with living systems.
What I find interesting is that you’re probably providing a little competition to the medical device industry.
Well, it is really interesting because I had the opportunity to speak with three different CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and I remember telling all three of these people that medical devices are becoming alive. Everyone has a sense that the better devices can integrate into the body, the better the outcome will be.
So, traditional technologies are beginning to merge with the promise of regenerative medicine. We’re at a tipping point in terms of being able to realize some of the benefits that a truly biological approach affords. This is where devices are going. So the field evolves beyond competition and has more to do with collaboration. And when I think about where can we contribute to that…it’s definitely an exciting place to be.
Collaboration among scientists, companies, and academia, then, is really important to moving this forward.
Absolutely! Case in point: Living devices face scalability related challenges in terms of cell culture and manufacturing. For this reason, the Department of Defense just granted $80 million to create the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a consortium of companies and academic researchers, to address the scalability issues of advanced tissue biofabrication. It’s fantastic to see the government granting funds to help foster this type of collaboration.
How far along are you in terms of making this technology available to patients?
We’ve grown hundreds of bones over the years and we’ve tested them in various animal models. We’re now moving towards transitioning over the next 12 months into clinical trials.
At this point, we’re scientists trying to do the work to ensure that our technology shows enough promise and is safe enough to take the leap into testing in humans. If the technology lives up to its promise, it’s likely to be adopted quickly. This is the possibility regenerative medicine offers.