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Light-Activated Hydrogel, Stem Cells Recreate Knee Cartilage

Jennifer Elisseeff (Johns Hopkins University)

Jennifer Elisseeff (Johns Hopkins University)

Biomedical engineers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore designed a gel-like biomaterial that in a pilot study showed it could help heal damaged knee cartilage. The team led by Jennifer Elisseeff, director of the university’s Translational Tissue Engineering Center, published its findings in last week’s issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine (paid subscription required).

Elisseeff (pictured left), with colleagues from Johns Hopkins, Stanford University, Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Louisiana, and a surgeon in private practice designed a polyethylene glycol diacrylate hydrogel for implantation using microsurgery. The researchers used the hydrogel as a scaffold with mesenchymal stem cells — derived from bone marrow and that generate skeletal tissue — to stimulate growth of cartilage on the hyrdrogel. Shining a light solidifies the biomaterial and starts the growth of cartilage tissue.

The team first tested the technique in lab tests and then with lab animals (goats). The success of the preclinical tests led to a proof-of-concept test with 15 subjects having damaged knee cartilage. The patients were given microfracture, the current standard of care, plus an implant made of the hydrogel/stem cell biomaterial and adhesive. For comparison, three subjects were treated with the microfracture alone.

After six months, MRI images show patients with hydrogel/stem cell implants had new cartilage filling an average 86 percent of their knee defects compared to an average of 64 percent of the tissue replaced in the knees of the microfracture-only patients. Patients with the implant also said they had less knee pain in the six months following surgery. In addition, the implant patients reported no major problems in the six months following the treatment.

Johns Hopkins filed three patent applications and orthopedics device developer Biomet Inc. of Warsaw, Indiana — Johns Hopkins’s partner in the clinical trial of the technique — filed one patent application for the hydrogel technology. The trial of the technique managed by Biomet continues, enrolling more patients following the pilot test.

“Our pilot study indicates that the new implant works as well in patients as it does in the lab,” says Elisseeff, “so we hope it will become a routine part of care and improve healing.” Elisseeff’s lab started work on a next-generation implant that combines the hydrogel and adhesive into one material, as well as technologies to lubricate joints and reduce inflammation.

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