Columbia Research Team Awarded $39M to Develop a Living Knee Replacement

Credit: ARPA-H

Two members of the faculty of the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine are among a team of Columbia researchers that has received a $38.95 million award to develop a living knee replacement from biomaterials and human stem cells, including a patient’s own cells. Chang Lee, PhD , who is one of the project’s co-PIs, and Mildred Embree, DMD will assist in the development of NOVAJoint, a biocompatible, low-cost, patient-specific knee joint replacement, as a therapy for osteoarthritis, which is a common and irreversible condition where bones and cartilage break down, and often involves debilitating pain and loss of functional movement. 

Chang Hun Lee, PhD

The Columbia team is one of five nationwide that will receive the Novel Innovations for Tissue Regeneration in Osteoarthritis (NITRO) award from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that funds transformative biomedical and health research breakthroughs. The goal of NITRO is to solve foundational health of osteoarthritis, which currently affects more than 32 million Americans. and is the country's third most common type of disability.

Mildred C. Embree, DMD, PhD, MS

Treatment of osteoarthritis is often a total joint replacement using prosthetic implants made of metal and plastic but there are drawbacks to, and complications associated with the use of conventional materials. Additionally, knee replacements have had a limited lifespan, which may mean that younger patients can require replacements.

Embree and Lee have both focused their research on regeneration as a treatment for damage to the temporomandibular joint, which, in many respects, is similar to the knee joint. Lee’s research is focused on musculoskeletal and craniofacial tissue regeneration, and he has developed an innovative strategy for tissue regeneration by homing body’s own stem cells into defect sites. His work will concentrate on regenerating cartilage in the knee. Embree, who heads CDM’s Cartilage Biology and Regenerative Medicine Lab, discovered a growth factor in the local tissue environment of cartilage cells that is important for forming and protecting joints and has formulated this factor, called sclerostin, into an injectable hydrogel therapy. “We are leveraging the joints’ similarities,” says Lee. “The science is translational.”     

The goal of ARPA-H is to accelerate innovation. The first clinical trials are anticipated to begin in 2028, which reflects the need to develop solutions quickly without sacrificing safety. Additionally, ARPA-H provides tools and supports NITRO performer teams on transition plans for commercialization in order to deliver affordable, accessible, market-ready products for all affected by osteoarthritis.