Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering students have demonstrated a practical way to embed a patient’s own adult stem cells in the surgical thread that doctors use to repair serious orthopedic injuries such as ruptured tendons. The goal, the students said, is to enhance healing and reduce the likelihood of re-injury without changing the surgical procedure itself.
The project team — 10 undergraduates sponsored by Bioactive Surgical Inc., a Maryland medical technology company — won first place in the recent Design Day 2009 competition conducted by the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. In collaboration with orthopedic physicians, the students have begun testing the stem cell–bearing sutures in an animal model, paving the way for possible human trials within about five years.
The students believe this technology has great promise for the treatment of debilitating tendon, ligament and muscle injuries, often sports-related, that affect thousands of young and middle-aged adults annually. “Using sutures that carry stems cells to the injury site would not change the way surgeons repair the injury,” said Matt Rubashkin, the student team leader, “but we believe the stem cells will significantly speed up and improve the healing process. And because the stem cells will come from the patient, there should be no rejection problems.”
The corporate sponsor, Bioactive Surgical, developed the patent-pending concept for a new way to embed stem cells in sutures during the surgical process. The company then enlisted the student team to assemble and test a prototype to demonstrate that the concept was sound. The undergraduates performed this work during the yearlong Design Team course, required by the school’s Biomedical Engineering Department.
The undergraduate team located a machine that could weave surgical thread in a way that would ensure the most effective delivery and long-term survival of the stem cells. The team conducted some aspects of the animal testing, although orthopedic physicians performed the surgical procedures. The students also prepared grant applications, seeking funding for additional testing of the technology, in collaboration with Bioactive Surgical.