If scientists could create real knees and hips from scratch, millions of aging seniors suffering from osteoarthritis might remain healthier and more active into their sunset years. "If we could grow entire joints, we would have spare parts for surgery, to rejuvenate people, to restore their joints to functional, healthy states," said Robert Sah, director of the Cartilage Tissue Engineering Lab at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
Sah is among those poised to make great strides in the quest for commercially available biological joints. He and members of his lab have contributed to a basic understanding of the biomechanical properties of cartilage and, more recently, have successfully grown tissue in the lab, complete with lubricant-secreting cells at the surface—like real joint cartilage.
However, making the leap from mechanical and cadaver-donated joints—neither of which are ideal for patients—to ones made of engineered tissues is going to require a new generation of biomedical researchers, who are accustomed to working in teams. Determined to prove that research and education can be integrated in a way that is mutually beneficial to both students and researchers, Sah is pioneering a new model of undergraduate education and community outreach, using joint bioengineering as a central theme. "We have the opportunity to push forward faster," he said. "Undergraduates and even younger students can play a role in accelerating research on biological joints, and experience an education that embraces engineering design challenges as well as the scientific method of inquiry to solve biological problems."
As an HHMI professor, Sah plans to introduce bioengineering to students at all levels, and to the community. He intends to double the number of undergraduates working in his lab at UCSD; introduce new courses in research and tissue engineering for undergraduates; contribute projects to a new design course for undergraduate seniors; mentor high school students in summer classes and research experiences; host field trips and demonstrations for K-12 students, and promote "A Day at the Bench" visits to bioengineering research laboratories for K-12 teachers. He also plans to create case studies in joint bioengineering that can be used in college courses, and make them available on the internet.
Dr. Sah is also Professor and Vice Chair of Bioengineering and Director of the Cartilage Tissue Engineering Lab at the University of California, San Diego.
RESEARCH ABSTRACT SUMMARY:
Robert Sah's research focuses on the biomechanical function and failure of articular cartilage in joints and on the development of biological restoration therapies. His HHMI project includes a collaborative research program in which undergraduates work with graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and academic and industry researchers to study, fabricate, and test cartilage and biological joints. New courses and instructional materials in regenerative medicine will also be developed for undergraduates as well as K-12 students.
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Photo: Fred Greaves/AP ©HHMI