My interest in cartilage research began in 1997 when I learned how to perform cartilage transplantation (autologous chondrocyte transplantation) utilizing the technique developed by Lars Peterson and Matts Brittberg, commercialized by Genzyme. This was one of the first examples of tissue engineering, in which the intent is to use living cells, sometimes coupled with scaffolds or other factors, as a method of repairing damaged tissue in the body. In orthopaedic surgery, this is sometimes referred to as orthobiologics. Many people in the field think that biologic repair someday will supplant mechanical repair—like total joint replacement—in many circumstances, especially if the problem is diagnosed early and treated before complete destruction of the tissue occurs.
Normal cartilage grows in layers and in a very specific way. The cells are grown from the bottom up and make a very important matrix which has no cells in it and comprises most of the cartilage volume. The matrix attracts water. In our lab we have been able to replicate some of the natural layering of cartilage.
Experience in this field is still very, very early. Several amazing developments have already occurred in the 21st century that have put it on the map, and both research interest and commercial development interest is high. The first development that inspired my interest was the deciphering of the human genome, initially “completed” in 2002 and refined even more so since then. This accomplishment led to the development of “gene chips” that can test cells for biomarkers, which really means sequences of DNA that make certain proteins. If cells are cultured in the laboratory to help heal human tissues, it would be a good idea to know that they are making the right proteins—those proteins normally found in healthy tissue. So for cartilage, this requires the development of biomarker tests that are specific to the cartilage matrix proteins. My work on this subject was performed in conjunction with Dr. Geraldine Grant and the Department of Biomedical Genomics at George Mason University.
Genomics of Long Term Culture of Normal Human Chondrocytes, involvement of KLF4 and FRZB. Grant, G., Castano, V., Dong, Y., O’Reilly, L., Hariharan, N., Marcus, N.A., Chandhoke, V. Currently in press.