In a breakthrough, scientists have successfully converted human embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells, raising hope that in future, replacement cartilage could be grown for transplantation for a number of injuries and medical problems, including sports injuries, new cartilage for people having hip replacements, and even for cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.
The research, to be published in the journal Tissue Engineering, involved growing human embryonic stem cells with chondrocytes or cartilage cells, in Petri dishes in the laboratory in a specialized system that encouraged them to change into cartilage cells. When this was compared with just growing the human embryonic stem cells alone, the mixed stem cells and cartilage were found to have higher levels of collagen, the protein constituent of cartilage.
The cells were then implanted in mice on a bioactive scaffold for 35 days. When they removed the scaffold, the cells were found to have formed new cartilage, showing they can be successfully transplanted in living tissue.
When removing head and neck cancers, surgeons often have to cut away parts of cartilage, and then take grafts from other parts of the body. With this new technique doctors would potentially be able to take stem cells from the patient, grow them in a laboratory, and then transplant them after the surgery.
The research, carried out by a team at Imperial College London, builds on an earlier collaboration between medical researchers and engineers at Imperial College. The team had previously developed the bioactive scaffold, which was used as a scaffold to grow the stem cells on.
Dr Archana Vats, first author of the study, said: 'The ability to grow cartilage using stem cells could have enormous implications for a number of medical problems. Although doctors have been able to carry out joint replacements for a number of years, it has not been possible to replace the worn-out cartilage. By replacing the cartilage it may be possible to avoid the need for a joint replacement for some time.'
Dr Anne Bishop, from Imperial College London, and one of the authors, added: 'The potential of stem cells has been widely known for many years, but it is only recently we have started to make progress towards the ultimate goal of using them in patients. These results show it may be as little as five years before this advance can be used to directly benefit patients for a huge variety of illnesses and injuries.'