“The TMJ is central to chewing, talking and so many other daily activities, so when this crucial joint is impaired, there are significant negative effects on quality of life,” says Kyriacos A. Athanasiou, UCI Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering and senior author on a recent paper detailing innovative biological TMJ discs developed in his laboratory.

Irvine, Calif., June 20, 2018 — A first-ever tissue implant to safely treat a common jaw defect, known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction, has been successfully tested by UCI-led researchers in animals.

“We were able to show that we could achieve exceptional healing of the TMJ area after eight weeks of treatment,” said UCI Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering Kyriacos Athanasiou, senior author on the study, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine. He has spent nearly two decades researching the condition and potential cures. 

About 25 percent of adults worldwide – 90 percent of them premenopausal women – have difficulty eating and talking, chronic mouth pain, arthritis and other issues due to degeneration in the cartilage disc that hinges together two key jawbones.

Now, using animal models, scientists at UCI, UC Davis and The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston have successfully removed a tiny bit of existing rib tissue, isolated its cartilage cells and utilized them to tissue-engineer jaw disc cartilage via a “self-assembling” process the experts created. They then surgically inserted the new cartilage into the faulty hinge point of the jaw joint. The approach was allogeneic, meaning that the rib cells were taken from one individual and the new cartilage was implanted into another. Two months later, the defects were completely gone.

“This is a terrible condition. I have friends and colleagues who have suffered from it, so it’s extremely satisfying to think we could provide relief,” said co-author Jerry Hu, UCI principal design engineer, who developed a critical stage of the work: transforming the sometimes “poorly behaved” rib cells into smoothly functioning jaw disc cartilage.

Researchers and physicians have long struggled to effectively treat TMJ afflictions. One infamous technique involved putting Teflon into the jaw area; the substance disintegrated, with bits ending up in the brain and elsewhere. “It was a disaster,” Athanasiou said. After hearing about that and the subsequent dearth of research, he plunged in, first at UT, then at Rice University and UC Davis, and – since July 2017 – at UCI.

The next steps will be to ensure long-term effectiveness and safety of the implant in the animals, followed by clinical trials.

“We hope this will lead to new treatments for humans,” said Natalia Vapniarsky, a veterinary pathologist at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, where the surgery was done. “Most medical management approaches for TMJ disc issues currently aren’t curative but palliative. Patients come back needing further help, but by that time, the disc and joint are destroyed beyond repair, so all that can be offered is a prosthetic. We wanted to explore an earlier, regenerative solution.”

Orange County, a biomedical hub where UCI is located, is the perfect place for translating the breakthrough work into a usable product, Athanasiou said. He and Hu noted that while it might be possible to take someone’s own rib tissue and grow it, the process would require a lengthy delay compared to using readily available implants. Unlike other tissues and organs, cartilage from one body is not rejected when implanted in another body.

Athanasiou said the results might also apply to the treatment of hip, knee and other joint problems. The animals that did not receive the cartilage implants saw a 300 percent increase in osteoarthritis, which many TMJ patients eventually develop, while the treated ones did not.

“This is the first time that cogent healing has been shown in the TMJ area and, I dare say, the first time anyone has shown successful biomechanical healing in any joint. It’s key that we can achieve regeneration of an ailing tissue with our engineered implant, one that’s mechanically suited to withstand stresses,” Athanasiou said. “So we believe this represents an important first in all joint healing studies.”

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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