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Lab talk: a step forward for arthritis patients


How do you make arthritis surgery safer? In the latest from our Lab Talk series, bioengineer Ali Fathi describes his research and why it matters. 


An injectable hydrogel might be a safer option for a damaged joint than surgery. – blyjak / Getty Images

Any invasive surgery comes with the risk of complications, from excessive bleeding to infection. And for the very old and frail, these complications can be fatal. So I developed an injectable hydrogel that could make many invasive medical procedures, such as knee replacements and dental implantations, unnecessary.

At room temperature, the hydrogel is liquid and can be injected through extra-fine insulin needles. But when it heats to body temperature, its structure changes – it can become as springy as cartilage or as smooth as skin. We’re able to control this behaviour by adjusting the hydrogel recipe we use. It has two components: a synthetic polymer that becomes elastic or smooth as the situation demands and a peptide that programs the behaviour of the surrounding tissue.

I see it helping muscles and skin to regenerate too.

Cartilage, for example, can be completely worn away in the joints of patients with arthritis. Without its protective cushioning, bone scrapes painfully on bone. This condition is usually treated by replacing the joint via surgery – a high-risk procedure for elderly patients.

By injecting our hydrogel into the joint space where cartilage once was, we can replace the lost padding between the bone surfaces.

More importantly, it also provides a nice scaffold for new cell growth. If we add peptides to the hydrogel to encourage the growth of cells that lay down more cartilage layers, the body will naturally heal itself. After three months or so the hydrogel will be completely and harmlessly absorbed, leaving fresh new cartilage in the affected joint.

The growth it promotes isn’t limited to joints – I see it helping muscles and skin to regenerate too. It may prove popular with cosmetic surgeons! And we’ve run tests to make sure your body won’t reject it.

We have patented the technology and I think it will be available in medical clinics around five years from now.

And who knows? If someday down the track you need arthritis treatment, it may just help you get back on your feet faster.

Paper: Elastin based cell-laden injectable hydrogels with tunable gelation, mechanical and biodegradation properties, Biomaterials, 2014, vol 35, p5425-5435.

Ali Fathi is a bioengineer at the University of Sydney.
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