Irish start-up Zoan is using coral to 3D-print human bone grafts

On the shores of Lough Inagh in Connemara, in the west of Ireland, lies a facility that is sustainably cultivating marine coral that could be used for human bone grafts in orthopaedic procedures.

Developed by Galway-based start-up Zoan BioMed, the facility is one of the world’s first indoor coral production systems, looking to harvest the natural resource without depleting any existing systems.

Now, a 3D-printing biotech company will use this coral to print human bone replacements.

Zoan is partnering with Cellink, part of Sweden’s Bico Group, to change the way the orthopaedic industry treats bone breaks and other related issues by capitalising on advances in 3D bioprinting.

“We know we have a unique material that can offer better patient outcomes in trauma and spine repairs,” said Zoan BioMed CEO Stephen Wann. “It is incredibly exciting to envisage that we can mimic and improve those results with a 3D-printed solution that can offer customised patient devices.”

Why coral?

Marine coral, composed of minerals and salts from surrounding water, has natural biophysical properties that have been recognised as a highly effective substitute for traditional synthetic or bovine bone replacements.

Because of its similarities to human bones, as well as its strength and purity, marine coral has the potential to minimise residual pain and inflammation after surgery. Zoan says that only one operation is necessary when using marine coral as bone grafting material – which could make hospital stays shorter.

The company will collaborate with Cellink to use the inherent properties of marine coral to develop coral-containing biolinks that can then be used for 3D-bioprinting bone structures.

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While coral may provide breakthroughs in the orthopaedic world, it is also a rapidly depleting natural resource. But Zoan has found a way to ensure it doesn’t chip away at Ireland’s marine coral wealth unsustainably.

High demand

Wann said that the market for bone replacements is “growing every year” as populations age and patients seek new, more effective treatments.

“Cellink has an incredible track record of innovation and a shared view of the role we all need to play in building sustainable products. Together we can help realise the full potential of marine coral with Cellink’s world-class technology and deep experience,” he said.

Founded in 2016, Cellink builds technology that helps biomedical companies grow cells in 3D environments and print human tissues and organs.

Zoan has now launched a €5m fundraising round and is looking for investments to scale its business and expand internationally. Previous backers include the European Fund, Enterprise Ireland, Western Development Commission and Údarás Na Gaeltachta.

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