How to Fix Arthritis in Damaged Knee

By stimulating cells to reproduce, electricity has already been shown to help heal soft tissue injuries. Now, an electricity-producing implantable material likewise appears to boost the regrowth of cartilage in compromised joints. In a study conducted at the University of Connecticut, a team led by Asst. Prof. Thanh Nguyen and postdoctoral fellow Yang Liu explored the use of a “tissue scaffold” made out of nanofibers of a biodegradable polymer known as poly-L lactic acid (PLLA). It had previously been used to accelerate the healing of broken bones.

So-called tissue scaffolds take their name from the fact that they have a scaffolding-like three-dimensional internal structure, which acts as a sort of roosting place for adjacent cells to migrate into and reproduce. Eventually, the scaffolding dissolves and is replaced entirely by the cells, resulting in a solid piece of biological tissue.

Unfortunately, according to the scientists, joint cartilage that has been regrown using conventional scaffolds has tended to be weaker than the original cartilage, causing it to quickly break down under regular use. That’s where the PLLA comes in. Along with being biocompatible, it’s also a piezoelectric material, meaning that it produces a small electrical current when mechanically stressed. Therefore, it was believed that if a tissue scaffold made of the material were to be implanted in an arthritic knee joint, it would continuously produce cartilage-boosting electricity as it was squeezed during activities such as walking. In order to test that theory, pieces of the material were placed in the injured knee joints of rabbits, which regularly hopped on a slowly-moving treadmill. It was found that after one to two months, strong, robust cartilage proceeded to grow back within the joints. By contrast, a control group that received non-piezoelectric tissue scaffolding experienced little healing of the damaged cartilage.

Importantly, the material didn’t contain any chemical growth factors, which may cause unwanted side effects. The researchers now want to test the technology on larger, older animals, and to monitor the regrown cartilage for at least a year or two.


Self-Assembling Nanofibers Prevent Damage from Inflammation

Biomedical engineers at Duke University have developed a self-assembling nanomaterial that can help limit damage caused by inflammatory diseases by activating key cells in the immune system. In mouse models of psoriasis, the nanofiber-based drug has been shown to mitigate damaging inflammation as effectively as a gold-standard therapy. One of the hallmarks of inflammatory diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis, is the overproduction of signaling proteins, called cytokines, that cause inflammation. One of the most significant inflammatory cytokines is a protein called TNF. Currently, the best treatment for these diseases involves the use of manufactured antibodies, called monoclonal antibodies, which are designed to target and destroy TNF and reduce inflammation.

Although monoclonal antibodies have enabled better treatment of inflammatory diseases, the therapy is not without its drawbacks, including a high cost and the need for patients to regularly inject themselves. Most significantly, the drugs also have uneven efficacy, as they may sometimes not work at all or eventually stop working as the body learns to make antibodies that can destroy the manufactured drug. To circumvent these issues, researchers have been exploring how immunotherapies can help teach the immune system how to generate its own therapeutic antibodies that can specifically limit inflammation.

The graphic shows the peptide nanofiber bearing complement protein C3dg (blue) and key components of the TNF protein, which include B-cell epitopes (green), and T-cell epitopes (purple)

We’re essentially looking for ways to use nanomaterials to induce the body’s immune system to become an anti-inflammatory antibody factory,” said Joel Collier, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University. “If these therapies are successful, patients need fewer doses of the therapy, which would ideally improve patient compliance and tolerance. It would be a whole new way of treating inflammatory disease.”

In their new paper, which appeared online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Collier and Kelly Hainline, a graduate student in the Collier lab, describe how novel nanomaterials could assemble into long nanofibers that include a specialized protein, called C3dg. These fibers then were able to activate immune system B-cells to generate antibodies. “C3dg is a protein that you’d normally find in your body,” said Hainline. “The protein helps the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system communicate, so it can activate specific white blood cells and antibodies to clear out damaged cells and destroy antigens.”

Due to the protein’s ability to interface between different cells in the immune system and activate the creation of antibodies without causing inflammation, researchers have been exploring how C3dg could be used as a vaccine adjuvant, which is a protein that can help boost the immune response to a desired target or pathogen.


Giant Step For NanoMaterial Manufacturing

Tiny fibrils extracted from plants have been getting a lot of attention for their strength. These nanomaterials have shown great promise in outperforming plastics, and even replacing them. A team led by Aalto University (Finland) has now shown another remarkable property of nanocelluloses: their strong binding properties to form new materials with any particle.

Cohesion, the ability to keep things together, from the scale of nanoparticles to building sites is inherent to these nanofibrils, which can act as mortar to a nearly infinite type of particles as described in the study. The ability of nanocelluloses to bring together particles into cohesive materials is at the root of the study that links decades of research into nanoscience towards manufacturing.

In a paper just published in Science Advances, the authors demonstrate how nanocellulose can organize itself in a multitude of different ways by assembling around particles to form highly robust materials.

Nanocellulose can also form structures known from pulp technology with the particles

This means that nanocelluloses induce high cohesion in particulate materials in a constant and controlled manner for all particles types. Because of such strong binding properties, such materials can now be built with predictable properties and therefore easily engineered’, explained  the main author, Dr Bruno Mattos, The moment anytime a material is created from particles, one has to first come up with a way to generate cohesion, which has been very particle dependent, ‘Using nanocellulose, we can overcome any particle dependency’, Mattos adds.

The universal potential of using nanocellulose as a binding component rises from their ability to form networks at the nanoscale, that adapt according to the given particles. Nanocelluloses bind micrometric particles, forming sheet-like structures, much like the paper-mâché as done in schools. Nanocellulose can also form tiny fishnets to entrap smaller particles, such as nanoparticles. Using nanocellulose, materials built from particles can be formed into any shape using an extremely easy and spontaneous process that only needs water. Importantly, the study describes how these nanofibers form network following precise scaling laws that facilitates their implementation. This development is especially timely in the era of the nanotechnologies, where combining nanoparticles in larger structures is essential. As Dr Blaise Tardy points out, ‘New property limits and new functionalities are regularly showcased at the nanoscale, but implementation in the real world is rare. Unraveling the physics associated with the scaling of the cohesion of nanofibers is therefore a very exciting first step towards connecting laboratory findings with current manufacturing practices’. For any success, strong binding among the particles is needed, an opportunity herein offered by nanocellulose.


Cartilage-like Material Boosts Batteries Durability

Your knees and your smartphone battery have some surprisingly similar needs, a University of Michigan professor has discovered, and that new insight has led to a “structural battery” prototype that incorporates a cartilage-like material to make the batteries highly durable and easy to shape.The idea behind structural batteries is to store energy in structural components—the wing of a drone or the bumper of an electric vehicle, for example. They’ve been a long-term goal for researchers and industry because they could reduce weight and extend range. But structural batteries have so far been heavy, short-lived or unsafe.

In a study published in ACS Nano, the researchers describe how they made a damage-resistant rechargeable zinc battery with a cartilage-like solid electrolyte. They showed that the batteries can replace the top casings of several commercial drones. The prototype cells can run for more than 100 cycles at 90 percent capacity, and withstand hard impacts and even stabbing without losing voltage or starting a fire.


A battery that is also a structural component has to be light, strong, safe and have high capacity. Unfortunately, these requirements are often mutually exclusive,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering, who led the research.

To sidestep these trade-offs, the researchers used zinc—a legitimate structural material—and branched nanofibers that resemble the collagen fibers of cartilageAhmet Emrehan Emre, a biomedical engineering PhD candidate, sandwiches a thin sheet of a cartilage-like material between a layer of zinc on top and a layer of manganese oxide underneath to form a battery

Nature does not have zinc batteries, but it had to solve a similar problem,” Kotov said. “Cartilage turned out to be a perfect prototype for an ion-transporting material in batteries. It has amazing mechanics, and it serves us for a very long time compared to how thin it is. The same qualities are needed from solid electrolytes separating cathodes and anodes in batteries.”

In our bodies, cartilage combines mechanical strength and durability with the ability to let water, nutrients and other materials move through it. These qualities are nearly identical to those of a good solid electrolyte, which has to resist damage from dendrites while also letting ions flow from one electrode to the other.