In a new approach to treat damage to articular cartilage, Swiss researchers successfully used cells harvested from the nose to engineer grafts to replace damaged knee cartilage in a small group of patients.

The early-stage study on 10 patients aged 18 to 55 was published online Wednesday in The Lancet.

Damage to articular cartilage, the tissue on the end of a bone that cushions the surface of the joint is common and can lead to degenerative joint conditions such as osteoarthritis. In the United States, osteoarthritis affects 13.9 percent of adults aged 25 years and older and 33.6 percent of those over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are no gold-standard treatments to prevent or delay cartilage degeneration, CBC News reported. Patients now have the option to undergo microfracture surgery, where doctors create small holes near the damaged cartilage to stimulate a healing response, or a transplant of the patient’s own articular cartilage cells.

More on this...

The Swiss team, led by Author Martin, a professor of tissue engineering at the University of Basel, started the tests— the first on humans— by taking 6 mm biopsies from the patient’s nasal septums. They then grew the harvested cells for two weeks and, after cutting the grafts into the right shapes, used them to replace the removed damage cartilage.

After two years of follow-up, MRI scans of the nine remaining patients— one dropped out due to an unrelated injury— showed development of new tissue with similar properties to the original cartilage.

The patients reported improved pain scores and better use of their knees. No side effects were reported. The study did not include a control group and study authors noted that the positive benefit may be due to the placebo effect. Researchers also noted that the technique was still experimental and they still needed to watch for potential side effects at the harvest site.

Martin and his team now plan to study a group of 25 patients for a longer observation period, CBC News reported.