A hip fracture can ruin a person’s quality of life, especially the active middle-aged and the elderly. A joint ­replacement is not only a major procedure, but also very ­expensive.

But Chinese University vice chancellor and president Dr Rocky Tuan Sung-chi believes he and his team could soon change that – they have invented an artificial joint that Tuan says can add years of quality life, and perhaps postpone hip replacements by 10 to 15 years, while costing just US$100 to make.

Tuan, a professor of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, explained how he led a team at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, where he worked before taking up his current job, to produce the ­“microjoint” – a squashy, bendy implant that can be used in place of a ­natural joint. A prototype is now being tested on a dog following successful experiments on a ­miniature pig. Tuan believes ­human trials are three to four years away.

The US space agency Nasa has taken an interest in the project, and plans to send the man-made joint to the International Space Station to test why astronauts lose bone density ­during long periods in orbit.

uan said the microjoint, if used in humans, would buy time before a full joint replacement ­became necessary when treating osteoarthritis, the primary cause of disability that afflicts more than 20 million people a year in the US alone. The degenerative bone ­disease affects about 7 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women aged over 50 in Hong Kong.

Tuan said he was motivated by the need to find which of the four joint main tissues caused osteo­arthritis. “We don’t know where it starts and if more than one ­tissue is involved,” he said. “So we decided to divide and conquer.”

Tuan and his team reconstructed the tissues using cells in a bioreactor. Then, he said, he created a method “where I can ­encapsulate the cells within the artificial material I produced”.

By Mary Ann Benitez | South China Morning Post

Image Credit: Mary Ann Benitez/South China Morning Post

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