In adulthood, cartilage has almost no regenerative potential. Cartilage damaged by disease, injury, or simply as part of the aging process can therefore not be replaced by the body on its own. As a result, bones may eventually rub against one another, resulting in pain and arthritis, a condition at least a fifth of all U.S. adults experience. So is it possible to regrow cartilage?

Recently, however, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered a means to regrow cartilage by manipulating stem cells, the body’s natural repair kit, and the foundation upon which all specialized cell types are developed. Specifically, the researchers found that using microfracture, or minimal injuries in the joint, can prompt the development of articular cartilage, the special type of tissue that provides a cushion between the joints. During microfracture, tiny holes are drilled into the joint to stimulate the healing process.

Traditionally, microfracture would create a substance called fibrocartilage, which more closely resembled scar tissue than cartilage. It wouldn’t behave the same as articular cartilage and would degrade quickly. By manipulating the microfracture process, however, they could direct new tissue to reach the cartilage stage. 

First, they used a specific molecule known as bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP2) to trigger bone formation after microfracture. To prevent the regenerated tissue from becoming bone, they’d then stop the process using a different signaling molecule, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Both BMP2 and VEGF have been used for other clinical applications and are already considered safe and effective by the FDA. 

As of yet, the studies have only been performed on animals. Eventually, researchers plan to move onto larger animals and larger joints. Once the treatment is ready for human clinical trials, researchers believe smaller joints will be the first focus; for instance, people with arthritis in the fingers and toes may be among the first to receive the treatment. 

While this regenerative process holds promise, it likely won’t be available for several years. Moreover, researchers speculate that it may be most effective as a preventive treatment, or for patients in the earliest stages of cartilage loss. Fortunately, patients who already have considerable joint damage can consider other regenerative treatments, including stem cell therapy, to help alleviate pain and inflammation. For more information contact a care coordinator today!

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