Hong Kong researchers develop improved treatment for joint diseases

HKU team uses stem cells to grow new cartilage

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 7:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 7:35pm

For the first time, stem cells from a patient’s body could now be used to grow new cartilage tissue to fix joint diseases, thanks to the latest regeneration technology developed by University of Hong Kong researchers.

This tissue-engineered cartilage bone plug is a minimally invasive treatment with a clinical outcome comparable to current best practices.

To grow cartilage, stem cells are extracted from a patient’s bone marrow or fat, together with growth-stimulating substances and biomaterials, and are grown into complex tissues in around 35 days. The grown cartilage can then be transplanted to joints to replace the defective parts.

READ MORE: Osteoarthritis is becoming an increasing problem in Hong Kong

Cartilage injuries include those from sports and osteoarthritis. Among people aged 65 or older in the city, about 40 per cent suffer from osteoarthritis – a condition where patients suffer from joint pain and breakdown of cartilage.

In the past, the best way to fix damaged cartilage was to transplant healthy cartilage from the patient’s joints to the damaged area. However, this causes damage to healthy tissue, and the area to be treated could not be larger than two square centimetres.

Patients with severely damaged cartilage had to undergo more invasive procedures such as total knee replacement.

Tissue grown with the new method was tested and found to have a rapid and sustainable regeneration in a month. It had equally good structure and composition compared to the autografts used in the conventional approach.

READ MORE: Hyaluronic acid injections making life easier for Hong Kong knee-joint patients

“Our method is as good as the clinical gold standard, but we don’t need to hurt the healthy cartilage,” said Dr Barbara Chan Pui, associate professor of the university’s department of mechanical engineering.

“We actually can grow the tissue as large as possible, and therefore we can tackle problems with larger lesion size,” added Chan, who led the research team.

Surgeons can use the same surgical procedures as they did in the past to transplant the grown cartilage into the patient’s body.

While the research so far has been tested on animals only, the team is now working with orthopaedic surgeons in three local hospitals to apply the technology. A clinical trial on patients is expected to commence next year.