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Sugar could help repair artificial human joints

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A sugar-containing polymer coating could one day help repair artificial joint implants when they are damaged through wear and tear, research has found.

An international team of scientists, including from York and Durham universities and Tsinghua University, China, has developed the technique for easily repairing low-friction surfaces.

Taking their inspiration from the way cartilage works to lubricate joints in humans, the team has found that rings of sugar can help a polymer latch on to surfaces and repair damage.

Publishing their findings in the journal Chem, they say their discovery could eventually be used in medical implants to extend the lifespan of artificial joints.

They hope the coating could also eventually be used to reduce friction-caused energy waste in mechanical systems, making them more efficient.

Senior author Dr Paul McGonigal, associate professor from Durham University said: “Hip and knee joints in our bodies stand up to decades of wear and tear thanks to the cartilage being repaired and replaced constantly. We have made materials that work in a similar way, but that are compatible with artificial joints.

“The components of our coatings are biocompatible, which makes them exciting prospects for use in medicine.

“We could also imagine developing a range of these materials that work in very different environments. Avoiding and repairing the damage caused by friction is equally important to ensure that cars and other machinery last for a long time.”

While cartilage can be restored by human bodies if it becomes damaged, artificial surfaces are not normally repaired so easily.

The research team found that if the polymer coating they have created is rubbed from a surface during use then a sugar ring in its structure allows it to reattach easily.

The coating created by the research team then mimics the way cartilage works to lubricate human joints.

Cartilage uses water to make a slick surface that minimises wear and tear. In the same way, the new coatings coax a layer of water to the surface, making it slippery and protecting the surfaces as they are knocked or rubbed.

The researchers said that, for now, this type of repair requires more polymer coating to be dissolved in the water surrounding a surface, but they believe it will not be long until the coatings are improved to avoid the need for this extra material to be present.

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