Some exciting news was published earlier this year in the Journal of Arthritis and Rheumatology – researchers from the University of Iowa have discovered that a synthetic gel capable of repairing cartilage may also prevent development of osteoarthritis (OA).
James Martin, Ph.D., assistant professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Iowa, and his team identified cells within normal cartilage that are able to mature into new cartilage tissue. This discovery challenged the long-held assumption that cartilage cannot repair itself.
This breakthrough is incredibly meaningful for individuals who may not be a candidate for knee surgery but are suffering from knee pain and other OA symptoms. Cartilage, the spongy tissue essential for knee mechanics and lubrication, is compromised and often lost progressively over time as a result of osteoarthritis of the knee. This deterioration leads to joint dysfunction, pain and disability.
The Science Behind the Discovery
Because cartilage is crucial for those suffering from OA, Dr. Martin and his team focused on ways to prevent the substance from diminishing. This goal was ambitious given the commonly-held belief that cartilage has no regenerative potential. However, through a creative and innovative method, the team found success – injecting a custom-made substance called hydrogel into degenerative cartilage caused the cells to grow and mature into normal cartilage.
“This process gives us a great result,” says Yin Yu, co-author of the study and graduate student at the University of Iowa. “The new cartilage integrates seamlessly with the undamaged tissue, it… looks like normal cartilage.” While the new tissue is not as mechanically strong as normal cartilage, Yu and Martin conjecture that mechanical loading may improve mechanical properties.
What Lies Ahead for Patients with OA
People with a history of knee injuries, especially ACL or meniscal tears, have 4 times greater risk of developing knee OA compared to people without prior injury. A fact not well recognized in the athletic community is that 50% of patients who have had an ACL tear will develop OA within 10 years of injury. For some athletes, that means joint damage is well underway before their 30th birthday.
“There’s really no cure for osteoarthritis except for total joint replacement, which is not particularly suitable for younger patients because the artificial joints wear out and need to be replaced multiple times,” says Martin. “Our approach aims to leverage the body’s own capacity for repair, and what we’ve shown is that cartilage does have regenerative potential; you just have to manipulate it just right.”
These studies are encouraging, but further research is needed for this approach to be commonly utilized. Yu and Martin plan to start animal trials within a year and, if the results are good, they hope to be ready to start human trials in about five years.
At Reflex, we are passionate about helping our patients suffering from knee pain get back to life. Our medical staff is encouraged by the flurry of research activity that is happening across the globe as scientists and clinicians race to find a cure for OA, and we’re committed to staying on the cutting edge as new preventative and non-surgical treatment options come to light.