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Shock Absorbers

Can you really grow your own protective padding?

August 2002

Cartilage injuries have ruined the careers of many good athletes. When it is healthy and intact, this sponge like material acts as a shock absorber in knees, elbows and hips. Joints pivot without pain. But as cartilage wears down with injuries or age, inflammation sets in and the pain lasts for life. "Cartilage has an interesting property - it does not heal itself," said C. Mauli Agrawal, Ph.D., associate professor of orthopaedics at the Health Science Center. "Once you have a defect, you have a defect; once you have a tear, you have a tear. It is not reversible."

Joint replacements and improved anti-inflammatory medicines have helped alleviate the pain for some, but the artificial joints may wear out and the medicines may not be effective. Fortunately, researchers are edging closer to a day when cartilage replacement will be possible. Dr. Agrawal and other scientists are growing bone and cartilage in animal models at the Health Science Center, although it is not the quality of human cartilage, they are quick to say.

The scientists are implanting biodegradable micro-scaffolds into the animal joints and seeding the scaffolds with cells called chondrocytes, which are cartilage cells. Growth factors and osteoblasts, or bone-building cells, may be added to the mix to regenerate the bone underlying the cartilage. The result could be the first cartilage implants, and an end to much pain and suffering. "This looks like a promising avenue of exploration for the next 10 years, at least," Dr. Agrawal said. "Cartilage regeneration in humans could become routine within the next two decades."

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