Silk and Cellulose as Scaffolds for Stem Cell-Mediated Cartilage Repair

When two bones come together, they grind each other into oblivion. This results in inflammation, joint swelling and pain, and scar tissue accumulation, which eventually results in the immobilization of the joint. To prevent this, bone are capped at their ends with a layer of hyaline cartilage that acts as a shock absorber. However, cartilage regenerates poorly and the wear and tear on cartilage, particularly at the knee, causes it to degenerate. The loss of the cartilage cap at the end of long bones causes osteoarthritis . The only way to mitigate the damage of osteoarthritis is to replace the knee with a prosthetic knee-joint.

Stem cells can make a significant contribution to the regeneration of lost cartilage. The Centeno/Schultz group near Denver, Colorado has been using bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells to treat patients for over a decade with positive results. However, finding a way to grow large amounts of cartilage in culture that is the right shape for transplantation has proven difficult.

One way to mitigate this issue is the use of scaffolds for the cartilage-making cells that pushes them into a three-dimensional arrangement that forces them to make cartilage that mimics the cartilage found in a living organism. However a problem with scaffolds is finding the right material for the scaffold.

A recent publication has formed scaffolds from naturally occurring fibers such as cellulose and silk. By blending silk and cellulose fibers together, researchers at the University of Bristol have made a very inexpensive and easily manufactured scaffold for cartilage production.

Silk scaffold
Silk scaffold

When mixed with stem cells, cartilage and silk coax connective tissue-derived stem cells to differentiate into chondrocytes or cartilage-making cells. In the silk/cellulose scaffold, the chondrocytes secrete the extracellular matrix molecules characteristic of joint-specific cartilage.

Wael Kafienah, lead author of this work from the University of Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, said, “The blend seems to provide complex chemical and mechanical cues that induce stem cell differentiation into preliminary form of chondrocytes without need for biochemical induction using expensive soluble differentiation factors. Kafienah continued: “This new blend can cut the cost for health providers and makes progress towards effective cell-based therapy for cartilage repair a step closer.”

To make the blended silk/cellulose scaffolds, Kafienah and his colleagues used ionic fluids, which effectively dissolve polymers like cellulose and silk, but are also much more environmentally benign in comparison to the organic solvents normally used to process silk and cellulose.

Presently, the U of Bristol team to trying to fabricate three-dimensional scaffolds that can be safely and easily implanted into patients for future clinical studies. Before human clinical studies are commenced, however, they must first be extensively tested in animals and also, the nature of the interactions between the scaffold and the stem cells that drive the cells to form cartilage must be better understood.