Why you should care
While beer-brewing waste sounds useless, it might offer a cheaper, more sustainable solution for osteoporosis.
All that sludge at the bottom of the beer barrel might be useful for more than just marmite. Recent research suggests that a byproduct of the brewing process, known as beer bagasse, could help regenerate bone tissue for people who suffer from severe fractures or osteoporosis, a disease that results in brittle bones and afflicts more than 50 million people worldwide.
Scientists typically grow immature bone cells called osteoblasts on prosthetics, bone grafts and dental implants coated with synthetic calcium phosphate, whose chemical composition closely resembles bone. The problem is that these coatings, or scaffolds, are often made from toxic, non-renewable materials and can cost … about $92,000 per pound.
But bagasse is organic — essentially malted grains, after they’ve been used for making beer — and costs only about $54 per ton. Although it’s currently used for animal feed, scientists at the Technical University of Madrid and the Spanish National Research Council think the residue might also offer a cheaper, more sustainable alternative to conventional synthetic scaffolds, according to tests of a scaffold made from beer bagasse, described in the Royal Society of Chemistry in January.
The team processed beer bagasse from Spanish brewing company Mahou-San Miguel Group (who helped fund the study) into a bone-like material rich in silicon, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium — the main chemical components in bone — crisscrossed by thousands of tiny, interconnected pores, where blood vessels are expected to grow.
The researchers’ method for processing beer bagasse is ‘inexpensive and easily adoptable by the biomedical industry.’
But would bone actually grow on the new material? To find out, the researchers grew osteoblasts in the presence of powdered beer bagasse-derived material and synthetic calcium phosphate, comparing how many cells survived in each condition. They then processed each type of powder into a 3-D matrix, growing osteoblasts on them to determine which material they adhered to best. Finally they analyzed how well the osteoblasts matured when grown on matrices made from the beer bagasse-derived material versus conventional calcium phosphate. (Ideally, regenerated bone should grow completely around a prosthetic or bone graft, sealing it in place.)
Sure enough, the osteoblasts survived and matured on the beer bagasse-derived material as well as they did on calcium phosphate. They also adhered just as strongly to both materials, meaning that beer bagasse could replace conventional scaffolding, “eliminating the use of nonrenewable raw materials or toxic substances,” the researchers wrote. They added that the method for processing beer bagasse is also “inexpensive and easily adoptable by the biomedical industry.”
Beer bagasse could replace conventional scaffolding, ‘eliminating the use of nonrenewable raw materials or toxic substances.’
But it might be years before brewed bone replacements debut in the orthopedics O.R., since the scientists tested the new material only on cells — not on humans, or even animal models. If it does prove safe and effective enough for us, we could mend broken bones without injuring our planet in the process. Until then, bottoms up.