Times are changing: Get ready to add “coral bone grafting” to your enviro-medical lexicon.
The tale begins in 1988, when Rodney White, a doctor, and nephew Rodney White, a med student, together developed a bone substitute using coral gleaned from the Pacific Ocean. The elder White had a thunderbolt moment while scuba diving, realizing that coral and human bone share both physical and molecular properties.
In 1988 a doctor had a thunderbolt moment while scuba diving, realizing that coral and human bone share both physical and molecular properties.
Coral is made up of calcium carbonate; human bones, a calcium phosphate called hydroxyapatite. What the Whites figured out is that coral can be converted to hydroxyapatite with with heat, water and added phosphates.
Why was this such a big deal? Bone grafting procedures at that time typically involved the harvesting of bone from another part of the patients body — say, taking it from the hip to implant in the jaw — meaning two surgeries, two traumas, and two changes for complications. Researchers have long sought ways to lessen the physical impact of such grafting procedures.
The only bummer: the coral grafts didn’t completely biodegrade in the body as new bone regenerated, leading to some decidedly icky complications (e.g. internal bacteria growth). But cut to last year, when Zhidao Xia and his research team at Swansea University published a study announcing a more compatible grafting method. The missing link: further refining the extracted calcium carbonate into something called coralline hydroxyapatite/calcium carbonate (CHACC).
“Our methods have considerably improved the outcome of bone grafts by using the partial conversion technique,” Xia told the BBC.
Which of course, has brought out the money makers. OkCoral, an Israeli company founded by Assaf Shaham, farms corals specifically for bone grafting (his carbonate extractions go for a cool $250 a vial). CoreBone, another company based in Israel, is growing coral on a special bioactive mineral diet to make it especially suitable to grafting.
It’s not just bone grafting: coral just might prove to be the pharmaceutical super agent of the sea.
“A friend of mine, who grows corals for decorative purposes … asked me what could be done with the corals other than putting them in an aquarium,” CEO Ohad Schwartz told No Camels. Although he had no medical background, Schwartz did his research, recruited a lead scientist, and shortly expects to enter the dental implant market.
By the way, it’s not just bone grafting: coral just might prove to be the pharmaceutical super agent of the sea, as long as we don’t wipe it from the face of the planet (hello, climate change). According to the Nature Conservancy, various sea corals might contain both anti-viral drugs and anti-cancer agents, as well as elements that can help fight asthma, arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
“Coral reefs represent an important and as yet largely untapped source of natural products with enormous potential as pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, enzymes, pesticides, cosmetics, and other novel commercial products,” wrote Andrew Bruckner, a coral reef ecologist, wrote in Issues last year.
The coral of the story: when that snorkel instructor tells you not to touch anything, you really listen.