Method to grow human cartilage could eventually be used to treat arthritic knees
Mar 24, Houston - Dr. Kyriacos Athanasiou, the director of Rice's Musculoskeletal Bioengineering Laboratory told the Houston Chronicle in an interview that he and his team have come close to clearing the bigggest hurdles to replace worn-out and damaged cartilage - the tissue that covers bones in joints - with human cartilage engineered in the lab.
The deterioration of cartilage, which cushions the bones in knees and other joints, leads to severe pain for arthritis patients. About 200,000 arthritis sufferers in the United States undergo full knee replacements each year.
"I have been researching this area of cartilage since 1984, and this is the most excited I have ever been about the work," he said.
In this month's issue of the journal Tissue Engineering, Dr. Athanasiou's group describes the first successful method of growing and molding cartilage into natural forms without requiring scaffolds, trellis-like arrangements upon which cells are seeded and grown.
Currently, cartilage replacements require the biodegradable polymer scaffolds be implanted in the body with new cartilage. But when placed in the body, the polymers produce chemical byproducts that interfere with healing. As man-made implants, they also must undergo an extensive review process by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Using nothing but cartilage donor cells, Athanasiou's group grew dime-sized disks of cartilage nearly identical to that in the body. They then used the new cartilage cells, which knit together as they grow, to cover the end of a rabbit femur.
"We're no longer talking about repairing a small lesion," Dr. Athanasiou also said. "Potentially, we're talking about effectively treating osteoarthritis by resurfacing the entire joint. I'm not saying we're there yet, but we're beginning to see that it's doable."
Research into growing human tissues from cells, whether the source is embryonic stem cells — which are derived from an early-stage human embryo — or mature cells in the body, has rapidly increased in popularity within the past decade. Those years of basic research may be about ready to pay off in the doctor's office.