Johns Hopkins tissue engineers have used tiny, artificial fiber scaffolds thousands of times smaller than a human hair to help coax stem cells into developing into cartilage, the shock-absorbing lining of elbows and knees that often wears thin from injury or age. Reporting online June 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators produce an important component of cartilage in both laboratory and animal models. While the findings are still years away from use in people, the researchers say the results hold promise for devising new techniques to help the millions who endure joint pain.
"Joint pain affects the quality of life of millions of people. Rather than just patching the problem with short-term fixes, like surgical procedures such as microfracture, we're building a temporary template that mimics the cartilage cell's natural environment, and taking advantage of nature's signals to biologically repair cartilage damage," says Jennifer Elisseeff, Ph.D., Jules Stein Professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Unlike skin, cartilage can't repair itself when damaged. For the last decade, Elisseeff's team has been trying to better understand the development and growth of cartilage cells called chondrocytes, while also trying to build scaffolding that mimics the cartilage cell environment and generates new cartilage tissue. This environment is a 3-dimensional mix of protein fibers and gel that provides support to connective tissue throughout the body, as well as physical and biological cues for cells to grow and differentiate.
In the laboratory, the researchers created a nanofiber-based network using a process called electrospinning, which entails shooting a polymer stream onto a charged platform, and added chondroitin sulfatea compound commonly found in many joint supplementsto serve as a growth trigger. After cha
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