This Tough Gel Could Replace Human Cartilage (and It’s Self-Healing)

5 | By Michael A. Robinson

A team of researchers at Harvard University just reported a fantastic new medical breakthrough – in the form of a hydrogel.

The compound is made mostly of water, but it’s almost unbelievably tough, strong, and resilient. It can stretch to more than 20 times its original length. Not only that, but it can actually heal itself, too. Given time to relax between stretches, the bonds in the compound are able to “re-zip,” self-repairing any cuts or breaks.

Think about the major impact this could have on medicine.

As some experts quickly pointed out, the new gel could be used to engineer human tissue. No doubt, that would be huge. We could someday use a version for skin grafts for burn victims, or to grow tissue for other needs, like organ transplants.

But I’m more excited about a much more immediate use for the hydrogel – one that could benefit the nearly 30 million Americans who suffer from osteoarthritis.

This is a painful condition in which cartilage wears out around the joints such as the knees and elbows. The risk of osteoarthritis onset grows with age, particularly for people over the age of 45.

That’s why so many seniors have bad knees, elbows, or shoulders that are stiff and seem to hurt all time. Many take pain relievers every day, but even the strongest over-the-counter drugs can’t get rid of all the pain all the time. And it’s not just seniors who hurt – torn cartilage is a leading form of sports injury across all age groups.

Right now there is no cure. Finding one could save the country a small fortune. Experts estimate that osteoarthritis costs us more than $186 billion a year in medical care, drugs, and lost wages. We’re talking about nearly $2 trillion a decade – and that’s just here in the U.S.

Not only that, but this is clearly a growth market. The “graying of America” promises to greatly increase the number of these arthritis cases.

As I see it, in the very near future, doctors will be able to go in and actually remove the bad or torn cartilage that’s causing you pain. They’ll replace it with a hydrogel that is much stronger and more resilient than the original organic substance with which you were born.

In the Era of Radical Change, we will continue to see a steady stream of advances like this – breakthroughs that will help us live longer and healthier lives.

Hey, longevity is good. But quality of life is vital. What’s the point of living to 100 if your knees hurt so bad you can barely walk? Or your shoulder floods with you so much pain you can’t pick up your grandkids? But this new compound promises to change all that. It could even help a century-old man take up long-distance running again…

No doubt there will be plenty of opportunity for smart companies and their investors to become filthy rich in the process.

But just getting rid of a painful condition that afflicts hundreds of millions of people around the world ranks as a major “win” in my book.

Let’s take a look at how the team at Harvard did it…

To create this super-gel, the group of researchers combined two different hydrogels, each of which is pretty weak on its own.

The main ingredient is the first gel, polyacrylamide, used in make-up and skin lotions. The team combined eight parts of this with one part of the second gel, alginate. It’s a seaweed extract often used to make food thicker.

Now here’s the part I think is just plain brilliant…

Once combined, the two polymers form a complex network of cross-linked chains that reinforce each other. That’s what gives the gel its incredible strength. The chemical structure of this network allows the molecules to pull apart and expand over a large area, rather than become brittle or simply break. (You can see are several good pictures of how this works in the Harvard press release right here.)

If the gel suffers a tiny crack as it stretches, the chemical bonds will repair themselves. It seems nothing can weaken this substance. Team members showed that even when the gel sustains a major hole, it can still stretch to 17 times its initial length.

Therein lies its promise. For it to work in the body and replace cartilage, the gel must be able to expand and contract millions of times under pressure without breaking.

And since it’s made of water and two benign compounds, it’s almost certain the gel will work in the body without harmful side effects.

We’re still several years from proving this will indeed work in humans to replace worn-out cartilage. That will require many computer models, then animal testing, and then finally human trials. But I believe that if this gel runs into a dead end, something else will take its place. We just have so many bright minds working on problems like these, I know we will succeed in the long run.

It’s only a matter of time before millions find lasting relief from the effects of osteoarthritis and sport injuries.

5 Responses to This Tough Gel Could Replace Human Cartilage (and It’s Self-Healing)

  1. TJ Goforth says:

    I would be willing to test hydrogel immediately if it could replace the lost cushion between my L5 and sacrum. The disk has compacted creating considerable nerve pain in addition to lower back ache.
    I have had 2 epidurals which gave only short term relief. I take “pain relievers” but would love not depending on them for the equally short term relief they provide especially considering their accompanying risk.

    • Brian Hennigan says:

      When working I had a ladder accident my left foot slipped between a rung my left temporal lobe hit the metal extension bracket 20 minutes after I had an Elileptic fit the first in my life, 26 years before I had a car accident my injury a fractured scull and Doctors say the ladder accident was not the cause of the fit but can not prove it was the cause of the first fit in my life, MY age was 48 and I had worked as an Electrician for 33 years and no treatment or fits, if I did not have lhe ladder accident or go to work I would not of had the fit,I returned to work with doctors repor to do light duty only but my employer refused, 11 months after I was working up a ladder and had another Epileptic fit, no 1 ladder accident and no 2 were the result of such injuries Fractured Jaw, Neck and Back injury, Stress and Anxiety,Tinnitus and Epilipsy.the epilepsy continued and I have been put on a disability pension had many medercations and now on Lamogine 200mg a day and Valium 10mg a day side effects headaches, tremor, concentration and memory, had a MRI and EEG test report old scar wound, do you have any advise please

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