SurgaColl – a good idea takes shape for bone repair

19 Nov 2012

Prof Fergal O'Brien of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and chair of the scientific and medical advisory board at SurgaColl

Based on research into tissue regeneration that has been happening at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) over the past 10 years, a new medical device spin-out SurgaColl Technologies has been set up to commercialise the fruits of that research and create products to surgically treat diseases of the bone.

Earlier this year, SurgaColl Technologies announced it had secured more than €2m in investment from a funding syndicate, including AIB Seed Capital Fund, Enterprise Ireland, Harmac Medical Products and a number of private investors in the UK, France and Singapore.

It’s the textbook example of where an innovation in basic or fundamental research in the lab is being translated into a product for the medical devices market.

The innovation? A bone-graft substitute called HydroxyColl that can help to repair large defects in bone, because when you implant it into the site of damage it encourages bone tissue to grow.

The material was developed at the RCSI and is made up of two substances that occur naturally in bone: collagen and hydroxyapatite.

It sounds simple – mix two biological materials to create a bone graft substitute, implant it in damaged bone and see what happens – but the process of developing the technology was far more nuanced, explains Prof Fergal O’Brien.

He heads the Tissue Engineering Research Group at RCSI and traces the innovation back to a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)-funded project in the early to mid-2000s.

From bench to bone

“We started developing collagen-based materials for bone repair and we spent a lot of time optimising those materials in terms of their density and the sizes of the pores in the scaffolds of collagen,” explains O’Brien.

It got to the stage where they could control the size of the pores in the scaffold, but the material wasn’t yet stiff enough to be widely useful in bone grafts.

So they decided to add in hydroxyapatite, which gives bone strength. With funding from Enterprise Ireland, O’Brien and Dr John Gleeson worked out how to incorporate micro-sized particles of hydroxyapatite into the collagen scaffold without compromising the collagen architecture.

And when they tried it out on cells in the lab, they saw the material now encouraged bone growth, says O’Brien: “The hydroxyapatite was not only making the material stiff, it was also telling bone cells to create bone.”  

Preclinical tests in bone defects showed encouraging results, and the technology was licensed to spin-out SurgaColl Technologies. Work is now ongoing to scale up the scaffold in GMP facilities to obtain regulatory approval.

Image credit: The Science Picture Company

Image credit: The Science Picture Company

A learning process

O’Brien, who now chairs SurgaColl’s scientific and medical advisory board, says he has “learned volumes” from the process of moving a basic science discovery towards the med-tech market.

“You can read books and attend workshops about that process but it’s not until you go through it yourself that you develop the real skillsets involved,” he says.

What particularly struck him was the interest from potential funders in the science behind the technology.

“I thought that when the business partners would start the fundraising with the VCs that my job was done – but the VCs always wanted to talk to me,” he recalls. “They are smart people and they asked in-depth scientific questions about the technology and the science.”

O’Brien continues to engage in several areas of research relating to tissue engineering. He recently won European Research Council funding to examine how implantable scaffolds could deliver genes and stem cells to help repair bone and other tissues, and with support from SFI and the Health Research Board he is looking to bring cartilage repair technology closer to the clinic. is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos, documenting Ireland’s leading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication