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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 September, 2003, 23:38 GMT 00:38 UK
Slippery solution to broken hips
Friction in hip joints can wear them out
Scientist may have found a non-stick formula which could prolong the life of artificial hips and knees.

Current artificial joints fall far short of the virtually frictionless movement of their natural counterparts.

They can wear out within a decade of an operation - leaving the patient facing further surgery.

But now experts from Israel, Canada, Belgium and the UK have developed a polymer coating which could match the abilities of a natural joint.

The research is still at an early stage, but the scientists are hopeful that their laboratory breakthrough can be turned into a material that could revolutionise the manufacture of replacement joints.

The only lubricating fluids available in the human body are water-based, so the research team set out to create surfaces which offered the least friction in these environments in the laboratory.

Brush strokes

They created, in effect, brush-like surfaces, with the microscopic hairs of the brush created using large numbers of long dangling chains of molecules attached at one end to a ceramic plate.

These polymer brushes already presented a low-friction surface, but in addition the "bristles" on one side were each given a "charge" which also helped stop them merging with those on the other.

Tests at various pressures found that the ceramic plates and their coatings required far less force to move across each other compared with other well-known materials and coatings.

Dr Jacob Klein, from Oxford University, where the UK researchers are based, said the discovery offered "great potential", although the work was at an early stage.

He told BBC News Online: "I can see a number of things coming out of this - particularly in the area of biological joints.

"When these systems go wrong, it might offer a way of producing a therapy."

He speculated that areas in which almost perfect lubrication were paramount, such as the movement of the eyelid across the cornea, might also offer avenues for treatment.

"Dry eye syndrome", which affects many thousands of people, results from a failure of the lubrication system in the eye.

But he said: "It is not possible to predict exactly what we can do with this."

The research was published in the journal Nature.

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