In a small study, researchers reported increased healthy tissue growth after surgical repair of damaged cartilage if they put a “hydrogel” scaffolding into the wound to support and nourish the healing process. The squishy hydrogel material was implanted in 15 patients during standard microfracture surgery, in which tiny holes are punched in a bone near the injured cartilage. The holes stimulate patients’ own specialized stem cells to emerge from bone marrow and grow new cartilage atop the bone. Results of the study, published in the January 9, 2013 issue of Science Translational Medicine, are a proof of concept that paves the way for larger trials of the hydrogel’s safety and effectiveness, the researchers say. “Our pilot study indicates that the new implant works as well in patients as it does in the lab, so we hope it will become a routine part of care and improve healing,” says Jennifer Elisseeff, Ph.D., Jules Stein Professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Translational Tissue Engineering Center (TTEC). Damage to cartilage, the tough-yet-flexible material that gives shape to ears and noses and lines the surface of joints so they can move easily, can be caused by injury, disease, or faulty genes. Microfracture is a standard of care for cartilage repair, but for holes in cartilage caused by injury, it often either fails to stimulate new cartilage growth or grows cartilage that is less hardy than the original tissue. Tissue engineering researchers, including Dr. Elisseeff, theorized that the specialized stem cells needed a nourishing scaffold on which to grow, but demonstrating the clinical value of hydrogels has “taken a lot of time,” Dr. Elisseeff says.
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