The hint of a cavity seldom leads to the complete replacement of a tooth. A dentist typically goes in, removes the troubled spot and fills in the gap — ensuring healthy teeth for years to come.
A similar problem with cartilage in the knee or hip yields far different results. There are few viable options for repairing damaged tissue. It will often deteriorate to a point where a patient is left only with complete joint replacement to try to fix the problem.
But two professors with the University of Kansas School of Engineering are working on groundbreaking research to change that — thanks to a $1.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.
KU chemical and petroleum engineering associate professors Michael Detamore and Cory Berkland are collaborating on the project that could revolutionize the repair and treatment of degenerated cartilage.
“Cartilage doesn’t really heal well on its own,” Detamore said. “It’s not like bone where you put it in a cast, wait six weeks and the bone is healed. Cartilage is not really able to help itself, so we’re trying to give the body a little jump-start to help heal itself.”
The jump-start comes in the form of a special cylindrical plug, created by Detamore and Berkland. It recreates the body’s natural, gradual transition from bone to cartilage. They hope that a surgeon could implant it in the damaged area, like a dentist filling a cavity, treating the problem before it gets to a point where joint replacement is the only option.
Berkland is working on the creating the specific materials needed to help repair and regenerate cartilage before it deteriorates to that point.
“We’re working at the interface where you have a gradual transition from bone to cartilage where it goes through a mineralized cartilage region,” Berkland said. “We want to try to mimic that to get better-performing materials that look like natural bone transition to cartilage.”
The NIH grant was coordinated through KU’s Bioengineering Research Center where Detamore and Berkland both conduct research. It will fund two graduate students to assist the work for five years and allow the group to refine the technology with cells in the lab as researchers progress toward clinical trials in humans. It also brings together collaborators from departments across the KU-Lawrence campus, as well as KU Medical Center, University of Missouri-Kansas City Dental School, and Kansas State University.