Regrowing Cartilage in a Damaged Knee Gets Closer to Fixing Arthritis

UConn researchers Thanh Nguyen, left, and Yang Liu, with the tissue scaffold made out of a biodegradable polymer that they say holds promise for treating ailments like arthritis (courtesy of Thanh Nguyen).

A new ’tissue scaffold’ that holds the potential for a bioengineering breakthrough

UConn bioengineers successfully regrew cartilage in a rabbit’s knee, a promising hop toward healing joints in humans, they report in the January 12 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

Arthritis is a common and painful disease caused by damage to our joints. Normally pads of cartilage cushion those spots. But injuries or age can wear it away. As cartilage deteriorates, bone begins to hit bone, and everyday activities like walking become terribly painful.

The best treatments available try to replace the damaged cartilage with a healthy piece taken from elsewhere in the body or a donor. But healthy cartilage is in limited supply. If it’s your own, transplanting it could injure the place it was taken from; if it’s from someone else, your immune system is likely to reject it.

The best possible treatment would be to regrow healthy cartilage in the damaged joint itself. Some researchers have tried amplifying chemical growth factors to induce the body to grow cartilage on its own; other attempts rely on a bioengineered scaffold to give the body a template for the fresh tissue. But neither of these approaches works, even in combination.

“The regrown cartilage doesn’t behave like native cartilage. It breaks, under the normal stresses of the joint,” says UConn bioengineer Thanh Nguyen, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Nguyen’s lab has also been working on cartilage regeneration, and they’ve discovered that electrical signals are key to normal growth. They designed a tissue scaffold made out of nanofibers of poly-L lactic acid (PLLA), a biodegradable polymer often used to stitch up surgical wounds. The nanomaterial has a neat property called piezo-electricity. When it is squeezed, it produces a little burst of electrical current. The regular movement of a joint, such as a person walking, can cause the PLLA scaffold to generate a weak but steady electrical field that encourages cells to colonize it and grow into cartilage. No outside growth factors or stem cells (which are potentially toxic or risk undesired adverse events) are necessary, and crucially, the cartilage that grows is mechanically robust.

By Kim Krieger | University of Connecticut

Image Credit: Thanh Nguyen / UConn

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About Peter Coffaro 437 Articles
A growth-driven and strategic executive, Peter Coffaro commands more than 20 years of progressive management success within the orthopedic industry. Recognized by MedReps.com and the World Journal of Orthopedics as one of the top medical sales influencers in the industry; he has 10 years of combined sales management experience and has held positions as a Director, General Manager, Distributor and Vice President. Peter has worked for some of the top orthopedic companies in the world - Zimmer, DePuy and Stryker. He is also the founder of OrthoFeed: a popular blog that covers digital orthopedic news and emerging medical technologies. Peter is a three-time Hall of Fame award winner at Johnson and Johnson and has an extensive background in organizational development, business development, sales management, digital marketing and professional education. Peter holds a B.S. degree in Biology from Northern Illinois University.

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