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Artificial Cartilage Made As Strong as Bulletproof Vests

S u m m a r y :
A new type of artificial cartilage has proved to be as strong as bulletproof vests. The findings are published in Advanced Materials.

A Synthetic Upgrade

The human body is a true wonder, given how its different organ systems work together from microscopic to macroscopic levels to allow life to occur. However, though intricate, complex, and perfected, it is still vulnerable to injury and disease. Comes science to the rescue! Researchers are constantly working to protect and cure and heal the human body, and if needed, to replace parts that can no more be ‘rescued’. Such an endeavour has resulted in an artificial cartilage made as strong as bulletproof vests!

Newly fabricated artificial cartilage made mostly from water is strong and resistant to tears. Photo Credits: JOSEPH XU/MICHIGAN ENGINEERING COMMUNICATIONS & MARKETING.

Water + Aramid Fibres Work Wonders

A team of investigators from the University of Michigan has fashioned a cartilage, resembling the natural one in properties, from a polymer mixture, known as hydrogel, which is made of water, and aramid fibres that are normally used to make bulletproof vests. The high percentage of water embedded into the material allows for the movement of nutrients just like in the real, human cartilage. Furthermore, it also mimics the stiffness and toughness of the latter. It is hoped that the synthetic object can replace natural cartilages that have been damaged and not healed properly—this would greatly relief patients from joint pain, and might even avoid joint replacement surgery.

Close-up image from electron microscope, showing the network of nanofibre and polymer that makes up the synthetic cartilage. Photo Credits: LIZHI XU/KOTOV LAB/UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN.

Testing the Artificial Cartilage

The problem with other artificial cartilages is the weakness of the synthetic materials or their inability to hold a sufficient amount of water that would ease the transport of nutrients in the surrounding cells—both countered by the new technique. University of Michigan’s Nicholas Kotov and his colleagues were able to make two types of cartilage: one packing 70% water, and another with 92%. They both resembled the stiffness and toughness of real cartilages, and even exceeded them, as shows the many tests conducted by the researchers. The materials proved to retain their shape when squeezed and stretched, and were not easily broken.

Avoiding Major Surgeries

A biomedical engineer from Drexel University, Kara Spiller, who was not involved in the study, describes the new material as having a lot of possibilities. She believes that osteoarthritis patients will benefit the most from the invention because they normally have no bone damage, but only cartilage damage; these people will often have to go through whole knee or hip replacements regardless of having no bone issues. Therefore, if only their word-out cartilage could be replaced, it would greatly decrease the health risks that come with major surgeries.

Another category of people whose pain could be alleviated from this technology would be those suffering from sports injuries entailing tendon or ligament damage, and those with back pain, adds Spiller.

Can it be used in humans?

Now, the next step will be to test whether the new material can be incorporated into the human body.

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