By: Jean Johnson for Knee1
We know. “Light activated gene therapy” comes across as a real yawner. A nine-syllable medical tongue-twister that makes one want to schlep out for a triple-scoop ice cream cone or at the very least take a hike. But stripped of the hallowed profession’s terminology, what we have here is nothing short of pretty spectacular – using UV light to stimulate damaged cartilage cells to regrow and repair themselves. It’s like presto chango – a brand new knee for the lady in back in the red dress.
“I’ll have to wait until this one actually gets closer to the gate to get excited,” said Zachary Tosh of Bozeman, Mont. “But if it does really pan out, I’ll be blown away. My dad had a knee replacement five years ago, and the recovery was really something. He was a very sick man for a long time after the surgery. And getting back on his feet has been quite the ordeal.
| Tips for preventing knee injuries:|
Before starting any exercise be sure to warm up properly and stretch.
Work on strengthening the leg muscles that benefit the knee.
Avoid sudden changes in the intensity of exercise. Increase the force or duration of activity gradually.
Wear shoes that both fit properly and are in good condition to help maintain balance and leg alignment when walking or running.
Knee problems may be caused by flat feet or overpronated feet (feet that roll inward). People can often reduce some these problems by wearing special shoe inserts (orthotics).
Maintain appropriate weight to reduce stress on the knee. Obesity increases the risk of degenerative (wearing) conditions such as osteoarthritis of the knee.
“You’d think I would have quit running since dad and me have the same build, but I haven’t. I’m one of those baby boomers who thinks he’ll live forever I guess,” said Tosh. “My knees do hurt sometimes. I buy all these fancy shoes, even though my doctor says they’ll never save me. So the idea there might be some cure like this in the wings so that when age starts catching up with me I can basically get new knees is pretty neat. Sounds like Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth is finally surfacing after all these centuries.”
It’s early in the research, but according to the team from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry Tosh’s expectations aren’t too far off. Light activated gene therapy, they concur “would enable millions of patients currently consigned to worsening arthritis and joint replacement to return to athletic exercise.”
This is just the sort of stuff that warms baby boomer’s hearts: An elegantly simple discovery that could enable members of the exceptionally active and aging generation to avoid cuing up at their local knee surgeon’s office for replacements – or the very least living on mega-doses of Ibuprofen or aspirin. Let the hardware and drugs stay on the shelves. Bring on the magic of light activated gene therapy.
“For years researchers have been trying to turn on gene therapy precisely within areas of damaged tissue without harming surrounding healthy tissue,” said Edward M. Schwarz, Ph.D., professor of Orthopedics within the Center for Musculoskeletal Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “Our study shows that we can use our cellular defenses against, of all things, sunlight, to finally achieve safe, precise control over tissue repair.”
Before we supply the Cliff notes on how this technique works, it might inspire you to know that authors of the paper on the study which was published in the April 2006 issue of Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery said that “dramatic progress is being made” and that light activated gene therapy for cartilage repair once it goes through the numerous clinical trials that will undoubtedly be necessary, “will be safe, fast, easy on patients and compatible with techniques used by most surgeons (e.g. arthroscopy.)”
(In an arthroscopic examination, a surgeon makes small incisions in the skin and uses small instruments to illuminate and magnify the structures within the knee. A mini camera is then attached to the arthroscope which broadcasts the joint’s interior on a television screen. Since the surgeon is able to see inside the joint via the images broadcast on the screen, they can determine what repairs would most benefit the patient without the need for a large incision.)
How it Works
Current technologies can direct UV light with great precision and cells exposed in this way gain the ability to copy themselves and grow. Where problems resulted was in targeting tissues in question without damaging those adjacent to the injury. But now, the Rochester team found that longer wavelengths of UV light enable them to bring the healing treatment to specific sites.
While they aren’t giving a timeline just yet on when to expect what sounds like a miracle cure for knee injuries, they do say that this type of gene therapy can “truly repair, or re-grow, articular cartilage.”
Damaged cartilage does not repair itself like a broken bone does. More, once injured, the sponge-like layer that cushions the joints can erode, leading to osteoarthritis from which 40 million Americans suffer. Joint pain and inflammation can result, much of which leads to the need for total joint replacement surgery.
As Professor Schwartz put in, “We believe this area of research could represent a quantum leap from current treatments if successful because nothing out there brings about true regeneration of lost tissue.”