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Tissue engineering facility breathes new life into local biomedical sector

Over the past 18 months the focus of the medical fraternity, and indeed the country, has been on minimising the impact of Covid-19 on the people of South Africa. Our scientists and researchers have been at the forefront of that effort and we are grateful for the important work that they are doing. But South Africa has for many decades also been at the forefront of other important work to improve the health and wellbeing of its citizens — from the first heart transplant, to the work done on HIV and TB, to the pioneering work that the South African Medical Research Council does each day.

South Africa’s healthcare professionals, especially our doctors and scientists, are highly regarded across the world. Increasingly, the importance of the biomedical sector also is being recognised and South Africa may become a world leader in this regard. The opening of the Vitanova tissue engineering facility in Cape Town last month signalled an important step in cementing South Africa’s reputation as a leader in science, research and health innovation. This is the first facility of its kind in the Western Cape and only the third such facility in South Africa. This investment into the biomedical sector as a whole, and into tissue engineering technology specifically, is an important step for the country. 

The science behind tissue engineering is developing rapidly and staying at the forefront of these developments is vital for addressing the major public health challenges presented by the need for organs and tissue — specifically bone, skin and corneas.

Across the world huge strides have been made in the field of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. Today we are able to implant products made up of fragments of bone to stimulate a broken or damaged bone to regenerate, which is a marvel in itself. There is no doubt that what will become possible in the field of tissue engineering in the future is beyond what we are able to even imagine right now.

Scientists around the world are developing ways of 3D bioprinting tissues from a person’s own cells. Within our lifetimes, we are likely to see scientists reach the point where they can 3D print organs for people who need them, which will reduce the need of relying upon a very small donor pool. 

Last year, NASA astronauts conducted experiments on 3D bioprinting tissue while in orbit, to minimise the impact of gravity on the process! Every new discovery in this field brings us one step closer to using tissue in ever more advanced ways to enhance the quality of life for so many patients.

Vitanova represents the same possibilities for South Africa. With a state-of-the-art facility and people who are experts in their fields, together with the drive and determination that underpins all major medical and scientific advancements, we are ready to improve the lives of thousands of South Africans. 

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Petro Terblanche
Professor Petro Terblanche is chairperson of the board at Bone SA

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