Hope for sore joints

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are developing computer models of joints that could lead to a diagnostic tool for osteoarthritis.

Many of us will face pain and swelling caused by osteoarthritis, the natural wear and tear of our joints as we age. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are developing computer models of joints that could lead to a diagnostic tool for osteoarthritis and could make many hip replacements obsolete.

Robert Spilker, chair of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer, heads the effort to accurately model cartilage within joints, such as the knee, hip, shoulder, and spine. Spilker and his colleagues simulate a functional environment, such as the knee, through computer modeling that can recreate the mechanical environment, or stress, seen by a tissue and its individual cells.

‘There is more to characterizing tissue than just looking at biological structure and function,’ says Spilker. ‘The properties in bones and cartilage vary within themselves and also from person to person. Growing tissue such as cartilage is a major development, but making it function as a load-carrying material requires significant new engineering research.’

Currently, osteoarthritis can be detected only after cartilage thinning has occurred. But by this time the functional properties of the tissue have already deteriorated significantly, making effective treatment such as drug delivery more difficult.

Patient-specific cartilage modeling could help physicians predict cartilage thinning. In addition, more accurate joint models mean more accurate, less invasive surgeries, says Spilker. Physicians could choose cartilage replacement surgery over hip replacement surgery when bone fracture is not involved, although Spilker says the option might be 10 years down the road.

The challenge lies in creating patient-specific models, which requires massive computer resources. Spilker’s goal is to make the process quick and easy. He and his team are collaborating with researchers at the Orthopedic Research Laboratory at Columbia University

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