Growing new cartilage for knees?

December 29, 2008 6:10:36 PM PST
Bending down or getting up can be a painful chore for someone with knee problems. Doctors say many times the loud creaking in a person's bones can be blamed on loss of cartilage, but researchers are close to finding a permanent solution.

They're helping the body heal itself by naturally re-growing cartilage.

Getting down to her granddaughter's level is difficult for 60-year-old Kathleen Haberstroh.

"It hurts. It shoots up and down my leg and I can actually hear the bones grinding," she said.

The pain is caused by a lack of cushion, or cartilage, in her knees.

"The cartilage has completely degraded and bone is rubbing against bone," explained biomedical engineer Thomas Webster, who developed a solution that could soon help people like Kathleen naturally regenerate cartilage in their own bodies.

"We developed a material that serves as a band-aid that can be put in the place of the degenerated cartilage," he said.

Webster created molecular-scale tubes made of carbon that would be implanted in a person's knee. The tubes' rough surfaces are similar to natural tissue, which attracts cartilage-growing cells.

"We're more or less tricking the body into thinking we're implanting part of itself," Webster said.

Eevery time a person takes a step, the pressure on the tubes generates electricity. That current triggers the cells to grow cartilage.

"Cells which are residing on the material can feel and sense and grow much more effectively than without that electrical property," he explained.

The goal is producing new cartilage and helping Kathleen play without pain.

"It would make things a lot happier because I wouldn't be left out a lot," she said.

It could be a permanent solution for those who don't want to miss a moment of the action.

Webster and his team are still testing the cartilage regeneration procedure. Right now doctors inject an artificial gel to imitate cartilage in the knee, but that's only a temporary solution requiring follow-up injections.

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