Next steps

Moving forward, Alsberg’s team aims to lower the culture time to perhaps one or two weeks and also find ways to make the cartilage as strong as natural tissue.

The team still has work ahead of them. For the neocartilage to work, it will have to be up to the task of weight bearing — efforts that will be tested in animal models before the neocartilage can even reach the stage of clinical trials.

Farshid Guilak PhD, professor of orthopedic medicine at Duke University in Durham, N.C.,  North Carolina is enthusiastic about the research because he says that Alsberg found a delivery method that helps growth factors stay with cells at a constant rate, which could be useful for other applications.

“This work is very exciting because it provides a novel way of delivering the right growth factor over the right time course to produce tissue engineered cartilage,” says Guilak, who is also working on laboratory-grown cartilage.

Guilak, an Arthritis Foundation-funded researcher and his team at Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology use a woven scaffold to grow sheets of cartilage large enough and strong enough to cap the ends of bones. The researchers aim to stave off joint replacement for people with end-stage disease, in which patients have few options other than joint replacement because most of the cartilage is gone.

This work is also in the intermediate stages and undergoing animal testing. Both Guilak and Alsberg say their efforts could be five years from the clinic. Potentially, laboratory-grown cartilage could be used to treat defects in many joints including knees and hips.

“The field of regenerative medicine now is growing at an astounding rate especially in cartilage engineering. I would not be surprised if there are new promising therapies on market in this decade,” says Alsberg.