It is possible to embed surgical thread with a patient's own adult stem cells to promote healing, and reduce the likelihood of re-injury without changing the surgical procedure itself, according to Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering students.
This work has even won 10 undergraduates, sponsored by a Maryland-based medical technology company called Bioactive Surgical Inc., first place in the recent Design Day 2009 competition, conducted by the university's Department of Biomedical Engineering.
The students have now joined forces with orthopedic physicians, and started testing the stem cell-bearing sutures in an animal model, paving the way for possible human trials within about five years.
They believe this technology has great promise for the treatment of debilitating tendon, ligament and muscle injuries, often sports-related, that affect thousands of young and middle-aged adults annually.
"Using sutures that carry stems cells to the injury site would not change the way surgeons repair the injury, but we believe the stem cells will significantly speed up and improve the healing process. And because the stem cells will come from the patient, there should be no rejection problems," said Matt Rubashkin, the student team leader.
Officials at Bioactive Surgical have revealed that they developed the patent-pending concept for a new way to embed stem cells in sutures during the surgical process, and then enlisted the student team to assemble and test a prototype to demonstrate that the concept was sound.
The students located a machine that could weave surgical thread in a way that would ensure the most effective delivery and long-term survival of the stem cells.
They conducted some aspects of the animal testing, although orthopedic physicians performed the surgical procedures.
The students also prepared grant applications, seeking funding for additional testing of the technology, in collaboration with Bioactive Surgical.
"The students did a phenomenal job," said Richard H. Spedden, chief executive officer of Bioactive Surgical.
According to the researchers, surgeon may one day stitch together the ruptured Achilles tendon or other injury in the conventional manner, but using the sutures embedded with stem cells.
They say that, at the site of the injury, the stem cells are expected to reduce inflammation and release growth factor proteins that speed up the healing, enhancing the prospects for a full recovery and reducing the likelihood of re-injury.
They claim that their experiments on animals have thus far shown some promising results.
Lew Schon, a leading Baltimore foot and ankle surgeon and one of the inventors of the technology and an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said, "These students have demonstrated an amazing amount of initiative and leadership in all aspects of this project, including actually producing the suture and designing the ensuing mechanical, cell-based and animal trials."
The students say some of their grant applications are aimed at studying the use of stem cell-bearing sutures for other orthopedic applications, such as rotator cuff repairs. Future uses in cardiology and obstetrics are also being considered.