Scientists at Imperial College London and Italy´s University of Milano-Bicocca have developed a new material which they believe could be used to re-grow or replace damaged cartilage.
The team found that a scaffold made from the bio-glass material could be implanted behind the knee to encourage cartilage cells to re-grow and heal the damage.
Cartilage is a flexible connective tissue found in places such as in joints and between vertebrae in the spine. But compared to other types of connective tissue, it is not easy to repair.
The new material mimics the shock-absorbing and load bearing qualities of real cartilage. According to the researchers, it can be formulated to exhibit different properties. They are hoping to use it to develop implants for replacing damaged cartilage discs between vertebrae.
Additionally, the researchers say the material has the potential to encourage cartilage cells to grow in knees, which has previously not been possible with conventional methods. They are aiming to 3D-print tiny, biodegradable scaffolds which would provide a template that replicates the structure of real cartilage in the knee.
Reporting on the development, Imperial said that the combination of the structure, stiffness and chemistry of the bio-glass would encourage cartilage cells to grow through microscopic pores. The idea is that over time the scaffold would degrade safely in the body, leaving new cartilage in its place that has similar mechanical properties to the original cartilage.
Professor Julian Jones, one of the developers of the bio-glass from the Department of Materials at Imperial, explained: “Bio-glass has been around since the 1960s, originally developed around the time of the Vietnam War to help heal bones of veterans, which were damaged in conflict. Our research shows that a new flexible version of this material could be used as cartilage-like material.
“Patients will readily attest to loss of mobility that is associated with degraded cartilage and the lengths they will go to try and alleviate often excruciating pain. We still have a long way to go before this technology reaches patients, but we´ve made some important steps in the right direction to move this technology towards the marketplace, which may ultimately provide relief to people around the world.”
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has provided funding to support the next stage of the research, in which the team aims to conduct trials in the lab with the technology and develop a surgical method for inserting the implants.