Cartilage is the dense connective tissue usually found between bones to allow the smooth movement of joints.
Research to be published in Tissue Engineering shows how the Imperial team directed embryonic stem cells to become cartilage cells. This could allow doctors to grow cartilage for transplantation for a number of injuries and medical problems, including sports injuries, new cartilage for people having hip replacements, and even for cosmetic surgery.
Dr Archana Vats, from Imperial College London and first author of the paper, said: "The ability to grow cartilage using stem cells could have enormous implications for a number of medical problems. With the UK's increasing ageing population there will be an inevitable increase in problems created by people living longer. Although doctors have been able to carry out joint replacements for a number of years, it has not possible to replace the worn out cartilage. By replacing the cartilage it may be possible to avoid the need for a joint replacement for some time."
The research involved growing human embryonic stem cells with chondrocytes or cartilage cells, in Petri dishes in the laboratory in a specialised system that encouraged them to change into cartilage cells. When this was compared with just growing the human embryonic stem cells alone, the mixed stem cells and cartilage were found to have higher levels of collagen, the protein constituent of cartilage.
The cells were then implanted in mice on a bioactive scaffold for 35 days. When they removed the scaffold, the cells were found to have formed new cartilage, showing they can be successfully transplanted in living tissue.