Cartilage injuries are difficult to repair. Current surgical options generally involve taking a piece from another part of the injured joint and patching over the damaged area, but this approach involves damaging healthy cartilage, and a person’s cartilage may still deteriorate with age.
Bioengineers are interested in finding innovative ways to grow new cartilage from a patient’s own stem cells, and, thanks to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, such a treatment is a step closer to reality.
The research was conducted by associate professor Jason Burdick of the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and associate professor Robert Mauck of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Liming Bian and Murat Guvendiren, members of Burdick’s lab, also took part.
It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The broad picture,” Burdick said, “is trying to develop new therapies to replace cartilage tissue, starting with focal defects — things like sports injuries — and then hopefully moving toward surface replacement for cartilage degradation that comes with aging. Here, we’re trying to figure out the right environment for adult stem cells to produce the best cartilage.”
“As we age, the health and vitality of cartilage cells declines,” Mauck said, “so the efficacy of any repair with adult chondrocytes is actually quite low. Stem cells, which retain this vital capacity, are therefore ideal.”
Burdick and his colleagues have long studied mesenchymal stem cells, a kind of adult stem cell found in bone marrow that is capable of turning into bone, fat or cartilage cells. His group has been particularly interested in deducing the microenvironmental signals that tell these cells which way to differentiate. A recent paper from his group investigated conditions that can preferentially coax these stem cells into becoming either fat-like or bone-like cells while encapsulated in hydrogels, polymer networks that simulate some of the environmental conditions in which stem cells naturally grow.