Physicists Cure Arthritis! (Er, maybe not)

We’re always amused by academic press releases that promote breakthroughs for human health that may be decades away from practical implementation. On behalf of our fellow arthritis sufferers, we’ll let this cartilage replacement claim slide because of its technical bravura.

A team of physicists in the United Kingdom is experimenting with “acoustic tweezers,” which use ultrasonic waves to manipulate cells and other microscopic objects. In one of those give-us-more-funding scenarios, the release from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) envisions:

“Using the crafted sound fields, cartilage cells taken from a patient’s knee can be levitated for weeks in a nutrient-rich fluid. This means the nutrients can reach every part of the culture’s surface and, combined with the stimulation provided by the ultrasound, enables the cells to grow and to form better implant tissue than when cultured on a glass petri dish. By holding the cells in the required position firmly but gently, the tweezers can also mould the growing tissue into exactly the right form so that the implant is truly fit-for-purpose when inserted into the patient’s knee.”

5981C83F-5B06-492F-A608A6B303BA7A64Back in current reality, members of the team have used the tweezers to line up cells in a tartan pattern, which is a seriously nifty proof-of-concept.

Micromanipulation or “tweezing” with sound or light is already a familiar technique for physicists.  Decades earlier, the field perfected “optical tweezers,” which use light to manipulate objects as small as a single atom. While optical tweezers require a complicated set-up with laser-equipped microscopes, the more recently developed acoustic tweezers can fit on a chip, as demonstrated earlier by a research group at Penn State.

According to one of the EPSRC team’s lead scientists, Bruce Drinkwater of Bristol University, acoustic tweezers offer an advantage because, “They have a complete absence of moving parts and can manipulate not just one or two cells (or other objects) at a time but clusters of several centimetres across – a scale that makes them very suitable for applications like tissue engineering.”

We’re glad British taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, pass us the ibuprofen.

Image courtesy: University of Glasgow.