CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Osteoarthritis, which affects at least 20 percent of adults in the United States, leads to deterioration of cartilage, the rubbery tissue that prevents bones from rubbing together. By studying the molecular properties of cartilage, MIT engineers have now discovered how the earliest stages of arthritis make the tissue more susceptible to damage from physical activities such as running or jumping.
The findings could help researchers develop tests to diagnose arthritis earlier in patients at high risk for the disease and also guide engineers in designing replacement cartilage. The results also suggest that athletes who suffer traumatic knee injuries, such as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) which gives them a greater chance of developing arthritis later in life should be cautious when returning to their sport following surgery.
"It's a clear signal to be careful of going right back out," says Alan Grodzinsky, an MIT professor of biological, electrical and mechanical engineering and senior author of a paper describing the findings in a recent issue of the Biophysical Journal. "Even though your knee may be stabilized, there's the possibility that deformation of cartilage at a high loading rate is still going to put it at risk."
Cartilage is packed with protein-sugar complexes known as aggrecans, each made of about 100 highly charged molecules called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). Those molecules protect joints by absorbing water and causing the tissue to stiffen as pressure is applied.
"The cartilage is a stiff sponge, filled with fluid, and as we compress it, fluid has to percolate through these closely spaced GAG chains," Grodzinsky says. "The GAG chains provide resistance to flow, so the water can't get out of our cartilage instantly when we compress it. That pressurization at the nanoscale increases the stiffness of our cartilage to high-loading-rate activities."
The MIT team set out to in
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology