Osteoarthritis, a disease that causes severe joint pain, affects more than 20 million people in the United States. Some drug treatments can help alleviate the pain, but there are no treatments that can reverse or slow the cartilage breakdown associated with the disease.
In an advance that could improve the treatment options available for osteoarthritis, MIT engineers have designed a new material that can administer drugs directly to the cartilage. The material can penetrate deep into the cartilage, delivering drugs that could potentially heal damaged tissue.
"This is a way to get directly to the cells that are experiencing the damage, and introduce different kinds of therapeutics that might change their behavior," says Paula Hammond, head of MIT's Department of Chemical Engineering and the senior author of the study.
In the study, the researchers showed that delivering an experimental drug called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) with this new material prevented cartilage breakdown much more effectively than injecting the drug into the joint on its own.
Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that can be caused by a traumatic injury such as tearing a ligament; it can also result from gradual wearing down of cartilage as people age. A smooth connective tissue that protects the joints, cartilage is produced by cells called chondrocytes but is not easily replaced once it is damaged.
Previous studies have shown that IGF-1 can help regenerate cartilage in animals. However, many osteoarthritis drugs that showed promise in animal studies have not performed well in clinical trials.
The MIT team suspected that this was because the drugs were cleared from the joint before they could reach the deep layer of chondrocytes that they were intended to target. To overcome that, they set out to design a material that could penetrate all the way through the cartilage.
The sphere-shaped molecule they came up with contains many branched structures called dendrimers that branch from a central core. The molecule has a positive charge at the tip of each of its branches, which helps it bind to the negatively charged cartilage. Some of those charges can be replaced with a short flexible, water-loving polymer, known as PEG, that can swing around on the surface and partially cover the positive charge. Molecules of IGF-1 are also attached to the surface.