Scientists find potential cure for arthritis pain — by using electricity to regrow cartilage

STORRS, Conn. — A new method of regrowing cartilage by zapping the bone could bring pain relief to millions of people who suffer from arthritis. The technique, which researchers at the University of Connecticut have successfully tested on rabbits, uses small electric shocks to stimulate cartilage growth.

Normally, pads of cartilage cushion these areas, but they can become worn with age or through injury, causing the bones to rub and making everyday activities like walking incredibly painful. Currently, treatments involve replacing damaged cartilage with a healthy piece taken from elsewhere in the patient’s body or from a donor.

tissue scaffold
The tissue scaffold (courtesy of Thanh Nguyen)

However, healthy cartilage is in short supply and removing it from other parts of the body could cause more problems. To address this, scientists have explored ways of getting the body to regrow its own healthy cartilage, but attempts have failed so far.

Now, scientists have discovered the missing ingredient for the cartilage to grow back properly — electricity.

“The regrown cartilage doesn’t behave like native cartilage. It breaks, under the normal stresses of the joint,” says co-author Dr. Thanh Nguyen in a university release.

Building a new ‘scaffold’ for arthritis patients

The researchers designed a “scaffold” — a technique doctors commonly use to repair or reconstruct missing or injured body tissue.

The new scaffold is made of a biodegradable material doctors use to stitch up surgical wounds, called poly-L lactic acid (PLLA). The substance is piezo-electric, meaning it produces a little burst of electricity when squeezed.

This way, when the patient starts walking and the joint moves, the movement generates a weak but steady electrical field, encouraging cells to grow into cartilage.

“Piezoelectricity is a phenomenon that also exists in the human body. Bone, cartilage, collagen, DNA and various proteins have a piezoelectric response. Our approach to healing cartilage is highly clinically translational, and we will look into the related healing mechanism,” says lead author Dr. Yang Liu.

Healthy cartilage started growing back and the test subjects did not need any other ingredients or stem cells, which can cause nasty side-effects. The team recently tested the scaffold in the knee of an injured rabbit, who could then exercise on a treadmill.

“This is a fascinating result, but we need to test this in a larger animal,” Dr. Liu says.

The researchers are hoping to study animals treated with the scaffolding for up to two years to make sure the cartilage is durable. Dr. Liu adds that young animals heal more easily than older ones. If the piezoelectric scaffolding helps older patients heal as well, their invention will truly be a bioengineering breakthrough.

The findings are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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