Coral in aquarium Coral in aquarium Can coral like this be made into a replacement for human bones? OKCoral and CoreBone are teaming up to find out. (Photo: Dobermaraner / Shutterstock)

A coral farming lab that grows … bones?

Coral grown to treat human bone injuries is the health sector's newest commodity.

Assaf Shaham is a new breed of coral farmer, toiling over his crop in a lab, rather than in the wild, and in the desert, rather than by the ocean. And rather than growing coral for jewelry or as a building material, Shaham's lab, OKCoral, is contributing to an exciting transformation in the biomedical industry that is turning coral into human bone. 

Coral can be used to create human bone grafting materials. Bone replacements are often used to treat injured bones, acting as a scaffolding for real bone to grow on. Most bone replacements are synthetic or harvested from cadavers or animals, but coral is superior because it can't be rejected by the human body. It's also made of calcium, a main component in human bone, and is porous, allowing blood vessels to grow inside it.

Coral being made into bone replacementCoral bone replacement being developed at CoreBone, which sources its coral from OKCoral. (Photo: Screenshot courtesy of CNN)

Ohad Schwartz, CEO of CoreBone, an Israeli startup that sources its coral from OKCoral, founded the company almost three years ago with Professor Itzhak Binderman, a senior researcher at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. HSS is considered one of the best orthopedic hospitals in the U.S., according to U.S. News and World Report. Schwartz and Binderman are working to develop products for use in both the medical and dental markets, with federal approval expected within the year in the U.S.

David E. Williams, president of the U.S.-based Health Business Group, told From the Grapevine that the innovation would be safer than current alternatives.

“Bone grafts are used in dental, orthopedic and spinal surgeries to stimulate the growth of new bone material and to attach implants," Williams said. "CoreBone is commercializing a coral-based product that it expects to be safer than existing human and animal-bone based solutions – which can cause disease and rejection – and stronger than synthetic alternatives.”

CoreBone has completed several trials in partnership with Tel Aviv University and says it has had terrific results. “The bone grew within 21 days of transplant, and there was even marrow growth,” said Schwartz.

Though it's more complicated to manufacture a coral than a polymer, Schwartz said, "it’s worth it. At the end of the process, a coral grown by us is cheaper than polymers that had cells attached to them."

With CoreBone sourcing its coral from OKCoral, “we have a constant supply,” he said. “We don’t have to worry that in several years, harvesting from the sea could be forbidden.”

Coral in tankCoral growing in a tank at OKCoral in the Negev desert. (Photo: Screenshot courtesy of CNN)

In Israel's Negev desert, OKCoral features row after row of quietly bubbling fish tanks, each one a miniature biodynamic ecosystem – the fish eat the algae that grows on the coral, their feces feeds the coral, and the movements of the fish through the water keeps the coral strong.

The world's natural reefs are threatened by rising ocean temperatures, acidity levels and increased ultraviolet radiation due to the destruction of the ozone layer. There is also little control over the source and quality of the coral.

Shaham founded OKCoral six years ago, and says the work is intense and his expertise is built on lots of practice. OKCoral grows coral in a way that is sustainable and safer – it's free of disease sometimes found in naturally occurring coral.

His coral grows 10 times faster than normal coral, but the growth environment needs constant care. The salinity, temperature and chemical makeup of the water in each tank must remain perfect to keep the coral healthy. Shaham says that growing the coral takes so much work that he hasn't been outside the lab for more than 12 hours at a time since founding it six years ago.

“For me, it’s 100 percent learning as I go,” Shaham told CNN (the OKCoral report starts at the 1:06 mark of the video below). "I take the mother colony, and I cut off a branch of the coral with a diamond saw. Then I glue it to another base made out of cement."

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