Unlike other tissues, injury to cartilage can be notoriously difficult to heal, owing to its lack of direct blood supply. It is a rubbery smooth material found in joints covering the end of bones. It serves a very important role especially in large weight-bearing joints such as the ankle, the knee, and the hip.
Unfortunately, to effectively fulfill its function of facilitating joint movement, it lacks nerve and blood supply. Synovial fluid is the source of its nutrition and oxygen.
Damaged cartilage can render joints, if not an entire limb, useless. Damage usually results from sporting injuries, arthritis, and road traffic accidents.
Innovation in cartilage repair
Scientists involved in this type of research, especially in the fields of sports, are always looking for innovative ways to accelerate the recovery of damaged cartilage and to simplify treatment modalities. As such, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has seen two groups of its scientists, develop a hydrogel system that delivers medication and/or repair cells directly to damaged cartilage.
Their technique is deceptively simple yet exquisitely effective, with far-reaching applications. It involves injecting damaged cartilage with hydrogel. The gel is highly adhesive, and it sticks securely to the target area. This allows the delivery of its restorative contents over time.
But what’s special about this particular hydrogel?
Firstly, this particular hydrogel is highly adhesive, it sticks! As a result of this property, it forgoes the necessity of using sutures to secure it in place. Similar products on the market do not readily stay in place as the patient moves. A membrane is usually paced on such hydrogels to mitigate this inconvenience. The problem with this is that the membrane requires suturing (stitches) around the edges to anchor it in place. The process of suturing traumatizes, to some extent, the already damaged cartilage.
Secondly, one of the lead researchers, Dominique Pioletti compared their product to the competition and concluded that: their hydrogel is mostly water, in fact up to 90 %. Thus it matches closely the natural composition of its target tissue.
Lastly, according to the researchers, the hydrogel adheres, even more, when it’s stretched or compressed. This last property makes it ideal for large weight-bearing joints.
This is exciting news in the area of joint and cartilage repair. Going forth, the researchers plan to use this revolutionary system to deliver treatment to different areas of injury while loading the hydrogel with various drugs and/or repair cells.