If you're able to walk without pain, give a silent shout-out to your cartilage.
Every time you take a step, this flexible tissue absorbs the load and transfers it to the bone, allowing you to move freely. But unlike bone, if cartilage gets damaged--by injury, wear and tear, or inflammation--it can't regenerate. Over time, the damaged tissue degrades, and walking becomes progressively more painful as the bones come in contact with each other.
Eventually, you'll develop osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of arthritis and affects approximately 31 million Americans. And while there are some surgical interventions, you eventually hit a point where you're in so much pain and have such a loss of mobility that you need a total knee replacement." Lesley Chow, an assistant professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering at Lehigh University's P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science
Effective interventions don't yet exist because cartilage is so difficult to reproduce synthetically. Any new tissue that does form doesn't have the same properties as native cartilage and does not integrate well with the underlying bone it is supposed to protect. But if a biomaterial could be developed that successfully directed regeneration of the entire osteochondral ("osteo" for bone, "chondral" for cartilage) tissue, cartilage injuries could be treated earlier and degeneration could be slowed or halted altogether.
"If we can intervene when you first have that injury, this therapy would have the potential to buy you 10 or more years, or maybe you'd never need a knee replacement," says Chow. "That's the dream."
For Chow, it's a dream that got one step closer to reality when she received a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. The award supports work she and her team are doing to develop a biomaterial that promotes regeneration of the complex osteochondral tissue interface. Specifically, refining their 3D-printed material to provide the exact signals to cells that enable the formation of tissue organized in the same way as natural tissue.
CAREER grants are considered one of the more prestigious recognitions given by the NSF. They are awarded annually in support of junior faculty members across the U.S. who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research. Each award provides stable support at the level of approximately $500,000 for a five-year period.
"We know that we have cells within our body that are capable of regrowing these tissues, but what if we aren't giving them the right cues?" says Chow. "We think a lot about the chemical and physical cues we offer to cells. What we'd like to be able to do, for example, is change the chemistry of our biomaterial while retaining the same mechanical property. This is very difficult to do because these properties are inherently tied to each other. My lab has developed a platform where we can change these cues independently of each other." Related Stories
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