New nanoscopic material enables adults to regenerate cartilage
Amateur athletes, professional athletes and people whose joints have just worn out endure health problems, since humans are unable to regenerate cartilage once they are adults and often have to live with painful joints or osteoarthritis. Luckily, Northwestern University researchers are the first to design a bioactive nanomaterial that promotes the growth of new cartilage in vivo and without the use of expensive growth factors. Minimally invasive, the therapy activates the bone marrow stem cells and produces natural cartilage. No conventional therapy can do this.
“Unlike bone, cartilage does not grow back, and therefore clinical strategies to regenerate this tissue are of great interest,” said Samuel I. Stupp, the paper’s senior author, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science and Engineering, and Medicine, and director of the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM).
Type II collagen is the major protein in articular cartilage, the smooth, white connective tissue that covers the ends of bones where they come together to form joints. The Northwestern gel is injected as a liquid to the area of the damaged joint, where it then self-assembles and forms a solid. This extracellular matrix, which mimics what cells usually see, binds by molecular design one of the most important growth factors for the repair and regeneration of cartilage. By keeping the growth factor concentrated and localized, the cartilage cells have the opportunity to regenerate.
In collaboration with Nirav A. Shah, M.D., a sports medicine orthopaedic surgeon who treats athletes of all levels and ages and is a former orthopaedic resident at Northwestern, the researchers implanted their nanofiber gel in an animal model with cartilage defects.
The animals were treated with microfracture, where tiny holes are made in the bone beneath the damaged cartilage to create a new blood supply to stimulate the growth of new cartilage. The researchers tested various combinations: microfracture alone; microfracture and the nanofiber gel with growth factor added; and microfracture and the nanofiber gel without growth factor added.
They found their technique produced much better results than the microfracture procedure alone and, more importantly, found that addition of the expensive growth factor was not required to get the best results. Instead, because of the molecular design of the gel material, growth factor already present in the body is enough to regenerate cartilage.
The matrix only needed to be present for a month to produce cartilage growth. The matrix, based on self-assembling molecules known as peptide amphiphiles, biodegrades into nutrients and is replaced by natural cartilage.
Their current research results are published in a paper titled Supramolecular Design of Self-assembling Nanofibers for Cartilage Regeneration.