Imagine a medication smart enough to dispense itself where and when it’s needed. Now imagine that kind of “on demand” delivery geared specifically toward people with osteoarthritis. It’s not here yet (and, before you get your hopes up, it won’t be here anytime soon), but a team of biomedical engineers at the University of Delaware have made some promising steps in that direction.
It starts with a hydrogel—a medium containing medication that is injected into the body and that releases the medication periodically or steadily over time.
Hydrogels can be “smart,” meaning that they can be engineered to detect and respond to a particular stimulus such as temperature or light. So, for example, a hydrogel might be engineered to release medication when a patient is running a fever.
Now here’s where the OA connection comes in…
The University of Delaware group is working on a hyaluronic acid-based hydrogel that responds to the physical pressure placed on the knee and hip when a person walks—the physical pressure that typically causes OA pain. Ideally, this smart hydrogel delivery system would address that pain directly. As a person walks and the weight-bearing joint is engaged, the hydrogel would release medication into the joint to reduce inflammation and pain.
You might already be familiar with hyaluronic acid (Euflexxa, Hyalgan, Orthovisc, Supartz, Synvisc, and other medications); it may be administered by injection to treat OA. The difference in the hydrogel now being studied is the drug delivery system—a mechanism that delivers medication on demand to the joint when it’s in use.
Dr. Xinqiao Jia, professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering, is leading the research at the University of Delaware. A related study will be done at Rush University in Chicago. All of the work is in very early stages and there are plenty of questions to be answered. We don’t expect to see this type of smart hydrogel OA treatment anytime soon, but we are intrigued by the possibilities.