Interview with Dr. Oliver Schwarz, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) and freelance lecturer at the University of Stuttgart and the Steinbeis University of Applied Sciences in Berlin.
Today, people tend to live longer, while an increasing number of patients suffer from osteoarthritis. Even younger generations are now at a higher risk of getting osteoarthritis due to the frequent use of mobile devices. The EU research project APRICOT aims to develop a novel type of implant for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the hands – helping patients heal themselves.
Dr. Oliver Schwarz, scientist at Fraunhofer IPA and participant in the EU-project APRICOT.
In this MEDICA.de interview, Dr. Oliver Schwarz explains how the APRICOT project team came up with the idea for this innovative implant. He illustrates the advantages of the implant procedure and reveals the positive impact it could have on future endoprostheses developments.
Seven partner institutions from Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden teamed up for the APRICOT project and aim to develop a new type of implant for the treatment of arthritis in fingers and knuckles. How did you come up with the idea for this new implant?
Dr. Oliver Schwarz: Dr. Andy Taylor from Aurora Medical in Southampton came up with the idea behind this disruptive approach. He already filed a patent for it as well. Fraunhofer IPA has worked with bionic approaches for some time and has built expertise in the structural mechanics of elastomer implants. On account of this and since we already had successful project collaborations in the past, we were excited to join the team of experts who will join forces on this concept.
What material is the new implant made of?
Schwarz: We have not yet decided on the type of polymer. Right now, we are scanning the market to source for biocompatible, biostable and medically approved materials. We then have to test the mechanical properties of the polymers on our shortlist. They have to pass many rigorous tests to be a good fit for our application.
What are the advantages of the implant procedure?
Schwarz: This is typically an invasive surgery, meaning bone and tissue material is removed in the joint space and cavities or hollow spaces are created in the bone to anchor the implant, allowing for rotational stability. The new type of implant requires only minimally invasive surgery. The idea is to keep healthy bones and tissue intact.
The operation for the novel implant for finger joint arthrosis of the EU-project APRICOT is to be minimally invasive, and healthy bone and tissue are to be preserved completely.
Where exactly is the implant placed?
Schwarz: The project focuses on the distal interphalangeal joints. The concept can later also be applied to the proximal interphalangeal joints and other wrist joints.
How much will these implants cost?
Schwarz: We don’t have an exact number at this point. It will ultimately be determined by the total manufacturing cost, unit volume, and the market. At any rate, the most expensive part pertains to the medical procedure and the microsurgeon, which will be less expensive thanks to the minimally invasive requirement.
Having said that, you must also do a cost-benefit analysis, meaning you weigh up the costs and the benefits. The main benefit here is that this implant improves the patient’s quality of life as he or she is no longer in pain every time he or she moves their fingers and he or she no longer needs to take pain relief medication. The healing and recovery process after surgery will also be much faster and involve less pain.
The APRICOT project was funded under grant agreement No 863183 from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
How does APRICOT surpass earlier implant solutions?
Schwarz: At this point, patients tend to wait until the pain from damaged or deteriorated cartilage becomes unbearable before they finally decide to replace the joint.
Meanwhile, the Apricot implant can be used at an earlier stage of the joint disease. The implant protects the damaged cartilage structure and could then – at least, that’s my hope – help promote cartilage regeneration. If so, you would only need to use the implant temporarily. We will know in a few years whether that’s an option. The potential is definitely there.
What positive impact could the implant have on future endoprostheses developments?
Schwarz: This approach is disruptive in that it’s easy to insert the implant and avoid collateral damage. This makes it possible to preserve the joint tissue and maintain mechanical properties, promoting the ability to self-repair and regenerate. That’s why it is an entirely different approach to previous total joint replacement processes.
"Preserve what can be preserved" and "help patients heal themselves" is a game-changing approach to joint replacement surgery.
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