Scientists have found a way to grow synthetic cartilage which could revolutionise treatments for arthritis sufferers in the future. It could be a while before the research is complete, but it appears it will be worth waiting.
Researchers at Imperial College in London and the University of Milano-Bicocca have developed a synthetic form of cartilage called bio-glass that mimics the properties of natural cartilage in terms of flexibility, strength, resilience and durability. In the future the material could be used to regrow cartilage and create synthetic disc implants.
Bio-glass is not new. It has been around since the time of the Vietnam War when it was used to help heal the bones of veterans. However, this flexible version of bio-glass mimics natural cartilage is new and has exciting implications for alleviating the suffering of people with damaged cartilage in future generations.
The breakthrough material creates the possibility for growing new cartilage in knee joints. It could also enable the creation of synthetic implants to replace damaged cartilage discs between vertebrae.
What is cartilage?
Cartilage forms an important part of the structure of the body. It is a slippery tissue that connects different parts of the body, including joints (knees, ankles and elbows) vertebrae and the ends of ribs. Cartilage is used to bear weight and absorb the shock of movement in the body.
Naturally-occurring cartilage is made from specialised cells called chondrocytes. There are no blood vessels in cartilage to supply the chondrocytes with nutrients so, instead, they diffuse through the dense connective tissues around the cartilage. For this reason, cartilage grows and repairs far more slowly than other body tissue.
Osteoarthritis is a disease that damages cartilage and causes inflammation in the joint. Once cartilage becomes damaged or starts to wear away the bones can rub together causing pain, swelling and loss of motion in the joint. With a decline in the tissue that cushions joints, people with arthritis lose mobility and can experience severe pain.
There is no cure for arthritis and until now the only forms of treatment were pain relief or joint replacement surgery in severe cases.
However, even the best performing artificial joints are more than a thousand times stiffer than natural cartilage. Scientists are excited about the new material because it creates the possibility of being able to restore flexibility and comfort to joints and spines without using stiff metal implants.
Stimulating new cartilage growth in knees
Scientists hope that the new bio-glass material can be used to 3D-print tiny biodegradable scaffolds that would replicate the structure of real cartilage in the knee.
These scaffolds will be implanted into the knee where they will encourage the growth of natural cartilage cells through microscopic pores in the material. Over time, the scaffold will degrade safely in the body leaving new cartilage in its place.
The technology is still in its early stages and it will be some time before patients start to receive synthetic cartilage implants. The research team has recently received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to conduct further trials.
They hope to develop a surgical method for inserting the implants and will also be working with partners to develop 3D manufacturing techniques further.
The new technology will then have to pass regulatory hurdles before it becomes available for use with patients. Scientists estimate it could take 10 years for the technology to become widely availability but its potential for alleviating suffering make it worth the wait.