It sounds so futuristic—growing bones outside the body, then implanting them when needed to replace those that have become soft or brittle or riddled with osteoporotic fractures. But a diverse team of UVA professors is among many nationwide who are working on tissue engineering.

The professors—cell biologist Roy Ogle, chemist Milton Brown, biomedical engineer Edward Botchwey and mechanical engineer Joseph Humphrey—are collaborating on an effort to alleviate the suffering that comes with failing bones. Their approach: create a three-dimensional frame, or scaffold, seeded with bone cells, and place it in a “bioreactor” that provides it with the nutrients and molecules that it needs to organize itself and grow. When needed, the bone tissue is then implanted into a patient’s body, and the biodegradable scaffold wears away as the bone matures.

There are hurdles to overcome. The materials that encourage bone growth can work against the formation of blood vessels needed to feed the bones; Brown is working on a class of small molecules that mimic the functions of vascular endothelial growth factor, which the body produces to stimulate the formation of blood vessels. Ogle is exploring the possibility of adding a stem-cell line that promotes both bone and blood vessel formation to the framework.

Once perfected, bone transplants could benefit millions of people. According to the World Health Authority, joint disease accounts for half of all chronic conditions in people over age 65.