Joint Solution

Scientists in Assam use silk to develop a new osteoarthritis treatment

01 July 2018
Biman B Mandal, an associate professor at IIT Guwahati, has been researching the use of silk in biomedical innovations since his PhD.
courtesy prerak gupta / dr biman mandal
Biman B Mandal, an associate professor at IIT Guwahati, has been researching the use of silk in biomedical innovations since his PhD.
courtesy prerak gupta / dr biman mandal

Osteoarthritis, which results when the cartilage and bone in the body’s joints wears down from stress, often causes swelling, stiffness, chronic pain and difficulty in walking. The condition is widespread in India; a scientific paper from 2016 estimated that between 22 and 39 percent of the country’s population suffers from it.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, though doctors recommend various treatment regimens, from lifestyle changes to joint-replacement surgeries. A lab in Assam is currently researching what may become a sophisticated new treatment for the condition—a silk-based tissue implant. Biman B Mandal, an associate professor in biosciences and bioengineering at IIT Guwahati, along with Jonathan Knowles, a professor at University College London, have developed a technology to synthesise mats made of silk proteins and bioactive glass fibres, creating a tissue substitute which, they think, will regrow patients’ bone and cartilage cells and repair their worn-out joints.

In January, I met Mandal in his lab—three large rooms housing an eclectic array of machines, from a fluorescent microscope to a 3D bioprinter. It was after 8 pm, but the lab’s researchers, wearing white coats, were still hard at work.

Mandal began working with silk on bioengineering projects because he knew the material was often used, to great success, for sutures in surgery. The scientists in his lab, he explained to me, create the silk-based implants by reconstructing “the scaffold of the template where different kinds of cells can be grown and regrown.” This method produces an implant highly similar to natural tissue, “mimicking the implantation site” and allowing it to fit well on a patient’s joint.

Joseph Christakiran Moses, a PhD student who works in Mandal’s lab, told me that the silk they use is procured from local farms in the nearby city of Mangaldoi. They use muga silk—a world-renowned variety that has a geographical-indication designation, prohibiting any silk produced outside Assam from being called by that name. Sometimes, Moses and other researchers go to Mangaldoi themselves to collect silk cocoons.

Avantika Srivastava is a Bengaluru-based writer with a master’s in microbiology and a postgraduate diploma in journalism. She writes about science and lifestyle issues.

Keywords: Indian scientists osteoarthritis
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