A team of researchers have successfully regenerated rabbit joints using a process that helps form the joints inside the body, thus paving the way for alternatives to joint replacements in humans.

The researchers, funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), infused a protein into three-dimensional structures made of biocompatible and degradable materials shaped like tissues to promote growth of the rabbit joint.

The results of the study, published in the latest issue of medical journal “The Lancet” demonstrated the feasibility of growing dissimilar tissues like say the bone and the cartilage, derived from the host body’s own cells.

The researchers attributed the regenerative activity to the host’s cell supply to the joints, besides the response of the local tissue and the stimulation to create the entire surface of the joint cartilage and the bone. Such a method reduces instances of pathogen transmission and immunological rejection that cell transplants often bring up.

The team was made up of researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Laboratory, New York, the University Of Missouri School Of Veterinary Medicine, the Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina.

Since the cartilage is amongst the most regeneration resistant, we believe this is a pioneering work at regenerating an entire cartilage. This successful regeneration could help further research on other tissues so that cell transplantation becomes a thing of the past, says the report.

The team laser-scanned the contours of a rabbit limb joint and created a 3-D model that was converted into an anatomically designed bio-scaffold. A group of rabbits were given this bio-scaffold infused with a collagen gel loaded with a protein called transforming growth factor beta-3 or TGFB3.

These rabbits recruited 130 percent more cells and grew a full cartilage layer compared to the rabbits that received the bio-scaffold without the TGFB3. The former group also resumed weight bearing activity and locomotion in the limbs within three to four weeks of joint replacement.

The next stage of the research could see arthritic joints being replaced in pre-clinical trials with arthritis patients ultimately benefitting in the form of an alternative to joint replacement. With Osteoarthritis affecting a large number of patients in the United States, the regenerative tissue replacement process could provide a better option for joint replacement.