To arthritis patients, they still seem like wonders of modern medicine: artificial hip and knee implants that curb chronic pain.
In fact, 14,000 Canadians a year receive hip replacements and more than 21,000 undergo knee replacements, the numbers soaring over the last decade.
If Dr. Nizar Mahomed and colleagues at the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto succeed with fascinating new research, however, such surgery will eventually become a thing of the past.
The operations are, in fact, anything but panaceas, never really restoring people to their healthiest state, and often requiring replacement when the implant wears out, acknowledges Dr. Mahomed, head of orthopedics at the UHN’s Toronto Western Hospital.
With those limitations in mind, the UHN is pursuing research that aims to find a biological cure for joints decimated by osteo-arthritis, the most common form of the disease. Most dazzling among several experiments is a project that uses stem cells to create bone and cartilage, which researchers hope can be turned into a sort of organic joint implant that would fuse with existing tissue and regenerate diseased knees and hips.
Theoretically, the limits imposed on artificial joint-replacement patients would be forgotten.
“If we can find biological repair options, then basically we’re restoring the joint back to its native health state,” Dr. Mahomed said. “There would be no restrictions. You could go and run a marathon if you’d like. And there’s no concern that it is going to wear out, because we’ve basically restored it back to its [original] state of health.”
The research is prodded along by the reality of a field that in some ways has progressed little in recent decades. Drugs used today for osteo-arthritis simply treat the symptoms and are essentially the same as prescribed 30 years ago, said Dr. Mahomed.