Figuring out why artificial joints fail
Researchers in the USA hope to improve the incidence of joint replacement failure in the future. Nancy DiFiore explains what measures are being taken to improve the lifetime of artificial joints.
Nothing lasts forever, including artificial joints. Total hip replacements now last between 15 and 25 years in most cases; however, if a reaction occurs, the implant lifetime can be less than five years.
Further extending the life of artificial knees and hips is a challenge, given that they already are made carefully from metals such as titanium or cobalt-chromium based alloys, and portions are made of polyethylene. Using an advanced technology, Rush University Medical Center in the USA has begun a retrospective study to analyse implants that fail, in the hope of improving future implants and preventing or decreasing the incidence of joint replacement failure.
“If we know why and when the implants fail, the implant can be adjusted before surgically implanting, and surgeons can plan in advance for how and when an implant may fail,” says Robin Pourzal, a research scientist in the department of orthopaedic surgery at Rush.
“The reasons for revision surgery are varied and can include infection, instability and loosening of the prostheses, and the need for revision can occur within the first few months after implantation,” he adds.
Revision surgery for joint replacement failure may also be necessary as a result of corrosion or wear on implant surfaces. Implant failure occurs because of adverse reactions in surrounding tissue to the minute debris that results – from corrosion and/or implant debris wearing off a non-corrosive joint. In addition, there are various types of adverse local tissue reactions, which often are not examined in detail.
“Currently, there isn’t much research data published on this topic, because typically corrosion is not documented as a cause for revision. Awareness of corrosion as a major contributor has been increasing over the last few years,” Pourzal says.
Retrospective studies can help yield greater understanding of what leads to failure, whether it’s due to design features or patient characteristics, he explains.
Pourzal is examining approximately 400 implants that have been retrieved from patients since 2000 that qualify for the study. Failed implants are collected and catalogued in Rush’s implant pathology laboratory. Many of the surgically retrieved implants come from patients who underwent their original procedure elsewhere and came to Rush for revision surgery.
Additionally, more than 1100 patients have consented to participate in a post-mortem retrieval programme, allowing for the retrieval of their joint prostheses in surrounding bone and the collection of various organ samples at the time of their death. “The information garnered from these post-mortem retrieved components is among some of the most valuable as it allows for the examination of implants that were functioning well,” says Pourzal.
“This is a very comprehensive retrospective study that examines all types of implant failure,” says Deborah Hall, the manager of the implant lab. “Having the patient information in detail like we have is important in understanding how much material is released into the body and what factors lead to a reaction. It’s what differentiates our study from others.”
Pourzal uses advanced profiling technology for rapid, high-precision measurement of the surfaces of the retrieved artificial hip joints. The analysis reveals scars from wear on the joints and the shape and location of wear patches, providing valuable information about potential reasons for each joint’s failure.
“The OrthoLux 5 coordinate measuring machine is new technology and currently is the first and only one in the United States. It allows us to quantify how much corrosion and wear products are released into the body,” says Joshua Jacobs, chair of the department of orthopaedic surgery. Jacobs focuses his research studies on clinical performance of orthopaedic biomaterials, including implant retrieval analysis.
Thanks to philanthropic contributions, Rush was able to purchase the OrthoLux 5 from RedLux, a British manufacturer of high-tech measurement equipment, in September 2015.
By quantifying the amount of material loss due to corrosion, Pourzal and fellow researchers can build a statistical model to determine which factors affect material loss most significantly. The model takes into account patient factors (weight, age, gender, etc.), implant design alignment factors and material factors.
As a result, researchers at Rush will be able to make recommendations to implant manufacturers and to surgeons about how to prevent the occurrence of corrosion or other complications that lead to implant failure.
“The new machine also helps us to examine well-functioning implants that have not failed,” says Pourzal. “We now can see a correlation between how a surgeon implants the hip, in terms of implant alignment, and the wear of the device. This is all new data that wouldn’t be possible without this technology.”
In the study, researchers begin by inspecting the implants and categorising the degrees of corrosion and damage. The new technology is being used to quantify the damage and, specifically, its impact on joint function.
OrthoLux 5 machine has a white light confocal sensor, which allows for analysis of relevant implant surfaces without touching them and therefore potentially affecting the extent of the damage to the joint. It also can analyse an implant in five to 10 minutes. “It would take a researcher several hours to analyse each joint using current technology, and the data wouldn’t be as comprehensive,” Pourzal says.
Thanks to the availability of the large joint retrieval collection and the new equipment, Pourzal and Hall expect to achieve relevant results within the next year. “We hope that the results of this research study will allow the orthopaedic community to improve implant design and material selection, and that it will contribute to fewer complications and longer-lasting joint replacements,” says Jacobs.
Nancy DiFiore, Rush University Medical Center
Caption: Robin Pourzal. Credit: Rush Photo Group