Depending on the part of the body and the nature of the injury, cartilage either doesn’t grow back at all, or does so very slowly. That’s why joint injuries often take a long time to heal, to the point that scientists are looking into using things like hydrogels and 3D printers to help speed the process. Now, however, researchers from Switzerland’s University of Basel are reporting that cartilage cells harvested from a patient’s own nose can be used to grow replacement cartilage for their knee.

In the ongoing study, 6 mm-wide plugs of cartilage are being taken from test subjects’ nasal septum (the bit inside the nose, that separates the nostrils). Cells are extracted from that tissue, multiplied in the lab, and then applied to a piece of biocompatible scaffolding-like material.

Once the lab-grown cells have colonized that material, it’s formed into a 30 x 40-mm graft. That graft is then used to replace damaged articular cartilage (the tissue that covers the ends of the bones, where they meet to form joints), which has been surgically removed from one of the patient’s knees. So far, the results are described as "very promising," with the nose cartilage adapting well to its new environment.

Nasal septum cartilage cells differ from articular cartilage cells, in that they don’t express certain homeobox (HOX) genes. What this means in practical terms is that the nasal cells reproduce much more readily, so growing cartilage from them is a lot easier. The cells possess this quality throughout a person’s lifetime, so the treatment should work even on the elderly, who are the ones most likely to require it as their joints deteriorate. That said, it could conceivably be used on anyone suffering from cartilage injuries or defects.

The research is being led by professors Ivan Martin and Marcel Jakob. A paper on it was recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Source: University of Basel