Bioengineers found a way to regrow cartilage in a damaged knee, getting closer to fixing Arthritis.
Bioengineers at UConn have successfully regrown cartilage in a rabbit’s knee, offering hope for human joint repair.
Arthritis is a common and painful disease caused by damage to the joints. Normally pads of cartilage cushion those spots. But injuries or aging can wear it away. As cartilage deteriorates, bone begins to hit bone, and everyday activities like walking become terribly painful.
Healthy cartilage taken from the patient or a donor can be used to replace that which has been damaged. However, there is a limited quantity of healthy cartilage. In either case; if it’s your own, transplanting it could injure the place it was taken from, and if it’s not your own, your immune system is likely to reject it.
Regrowing healthy cartilage in the injured joint would be the ideal treatment. To encourage the body to produce cartilage on its own, some researchers have tried boosting artificial growth hormones; others have used a bioengineered scaffold to provide a template for the new tissue. However, neither of these methods, nor when combined is effective.
“Unlike native cartilage, the regrown cartilage does not behave in the same way. It fractures under typical loads,” according to a UConn bioengineer Thanh Nguyen, an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department.
Electrical impulses are crucial for normal growth in Nguyen’s lab’s research on cartilage regeneration. Poly-L lactic acid (PLLA) nanofibers, a biodegradable polymer commonly used to stitch up surgical wounds were employed to create a tissue scaffold.
The piezoelectricity of the nanomaterial is a fascinating feature. Squeezing it generates a brief burst of electricity. It’s possible that the PLLA scaffold can provide a mild but consistent electrical field that promotes cells to colonize it and grow into cartilage when a person walks.
It is not necessary to use external growth agents or stem cells (which may be poisonous or have unwanted side effects), and the cartilage that develops is also mechanically resilient. The scaffold was recently put to the test on a rabbit with a damaged knee. And as predicted, the rabbit’s cartilage grew back normally as the rabbit was placed on a treadmill to exercise.
Researchers in Nguyen’s lab plan to investigate the healing mechanism of cartilage, which they think is very therapeutically translational and will be studied further. But Nguyen remains cautious, even though the findings are exciting. The study was published in Science Translational Medicine on January 12th.
Nguyen says “this is a fascinating result, but we need to test this in a larger animal,” one with a size and weight closer to a human. A minimum of a year, if not two years of follow-up observation is required by his lab to ensure that the cartilage is durable.
The PLLA scaffolds should also be tested on older animals. Humans typically develop arthritis as they get older. If the piezoelectric scaffolding aids in the healing of older animals as well, this might be a significant bioengineering breakthrough.
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