Cartilage Research

Advisor: Scott Hazelwood and Steve Klisch
Students: Nathan Balcom

Picture of Cartilage Research

When cartilage becomes damaged, it cannot easily repair itself. The result is often osteoarthritis, a leading cause of disability for millions of people worldwide. Until recently, treatment options have been limited, but a new generation of researchers – including Nathan Balcom, who completed his master’s thesis in June – is fighting osteoarthritis with tissue engineering.

Research Explores the Surface of Healthy Cartilage

As an undergraduate, Balcom was part of the Cartilage Biomechanics Group at Cal Poly that included Britta Berg-Johansen (B.S., Mechanical Engineering, 2012), Daniel Crawford (B.S., Biomedical Engineering, 2012) and Kevin Yamauchi (B.S./M.S., Mechanical Engineering, 2012). The team project examined what is required to engineer a functional cartilage surface so  that it is compatible with authentic cartilage. Balcom led the third and final year of the project as a graduate student, working with Dominic Grisafe, a biomedical engineering senior, and Juan Gutierrez-Franco, a mechanical engineering senior. Advisors were Scott Hazelwood, associate professor in biomedical engineering, and Stephen Klisch, professor of mechanical engineering.

In osteoarthritis, the cartilage surface of the joint is damaged, and Balcom’s research efforts focused on understanding the complex geometry and properties of those surfaces. “The goal of tissue engineering is to replace damaged and dysfunctional tissues with tissue that matches the structure and function of healthy tissue,” said Balcom. “To work, the implanted tissue must match the original tissue geometry and its material properties.”

Cartilage grafts can be used to treat defects in many joints, including knees, hips and shoulders, but they may not last the lifetime of the recipient. Hazelwood said he is enthusiastic about Balcom’s research  because, ultimately, it may ensure the long-term survival of the graft tissue.

“Nathan was exceptional in conducting his research, using innovative methods to examine hard-to-quantify cartilage characteristics,” said Hazelwood. “I would suggest his work approached that of Ph.D. students.”

Balcom’s research efforts resulted in contributions to two conference abstracts and publication in the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering as co-first author. His thesis work was presented at the 2013 American Society of Mechanical Engineers Summer Bioengineering Conference, and his abstract was a finalist in the conference’s graduate student competition.

Balcom’s work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

For more information:
Scott Hazelwood
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