JERUSALEM — Doctor Shai Meretzki can regrow bones.
Not that that makes him special; the medical technology to do it has been available for years. But Meretzki can take excess body fat, extract mesenchymal stem cells from it, and grow custom-made bone, outside the patient’s body. It even comes complete with the patient’s own blood vessels, and once grafted, it will grow the patient’s own bone marrow.
That is what’s unique, and it all started when Meretzki was studying biotechnology and chemical engineering at Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, about 15 years ago. What if it were possible, he thought, to grow cells in three dimensions rather than the traditional two-dimension method?
“Many people grow cells two-dimensionally in a petri dish, in which you put the cells and they grow across the dish in a mono layer. But in our body, nothing is 2-D. What we’ve found is that the moment you take 2-D cells and grow them in 3-D, they behave completely differently,” the Israeli doctor and scientist said.
Meretzki’s research group was the first in the world to grow cells in a 3-D culture. He went on to found Pluristem Therapeutics (Nasdaq:PSTI), a biotechnology company that develops off-the-shelf cell therapies for a variety of human diseases. That was 11 years ago. It’s now a public company worth about $200 million and employing about 150 people in Haifa.
Pluristem takes a small amount of cells from discarded placentas after childbirth and uses them to grow a larger amount specifically for people who suffer from peripheral arterial disease, or problems with blood flow to the legs. The cells are injected into the leg and ultimately promote the growth of new blood vessels.
“After a few days the cells disappear, but you have a bypass of the block of the blood vessels that you have in your leg,” Meretzki said.
Results of the first clinical trial in Israel and Germany are positive: Of 20 patients who would otherwise have required leg amputations, only one lost the limb.
Meretzki’s story is just one among several medical startups in Israel that are increasingly pushing for their share of the global medical-devices market.
There are 656 medical device companies in Israel, according to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, which commissioned a 2012 study to learn more about the steadily growing industry with support from Global Business Intelligence, IVC, Ernst & Young and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. It found that 35 of those companies are publicly traded and 18 are owned by foreign companies, which shows high international interest in Israel’s medical startup sector.
The global medical devices industry was valued at $322 billion in 2011. Israeli companies represent just a small piece of the pie, with $1.83 billion of revenue in 2011, of which $1.6 billion was from exports. But those figures were up 9 percent from 2010, indicating solid growth, according to Dr. Ora Dar, head of the life sciences sector for Israel’s Economy Ministry.