Penn scientists develop a new way to re-grow cartilage

A group of Penn scientists working across disciplines—in this case engineering and medicine—has developed a novel way to allow patients to re-grow cartilage in their own bodies, using their own cells, directly in the site that has been damaged through injury or disease

Penn Engineering Associate Professor Jason Burdick says the breakthrough represents a new way of thinking about tissue regeneration. The work could lead to new, more effective therapies that offer longer-lasting results.

Additionally, because the cells are taken directly from the patient, they don’t cause an immune response, unlike current grafting and repair technologies, so there is no risk the body will reject the implanted cells.

A key first step to the growing pursuit of new biomaterial solutions begins with developing a fundamental understanding of the material properties of cells that make up cartilage. Since coming to Penn in 2005, Burdick and his team have looked at how the ingredients of cartilage change with time. They’ve studied the mechanical properties of these tissues, as well as the influence of mechanical loading on cells. Now, they are moving to the next phase: applying what they’ve discovered to translational therapies.

Experiments in ovine models are being pursued with adult stem cells, usually taken from bone marrow, and mixed with a hyaluronic acid hydrogel solution and injected into the troubled joint, where the stem cells are biologically instructed to regenerate into cartilage-forming cells. An ultraviolet light source is needed to form the material in the defect, but visible light works as well. The process is similar to how dentists fill tooth cavities.

Burdick cautions that it will likely be several years before the process is ready for clinical testing in humans.

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