From research idea to a medical device that fixes damaged cartilage

A decade of multidisciplinary research has led to a result that orthopaedists had only dreamt of: a way to repair the early stages of joint surface cartilage damage and thus prevent arthrosis. The first patients to benefit from the new methods will be companion animals, but human treatment is also on the way.

Patients with joint pain are unfortunately an everyday phenomenon in health care. There is no way to cure or stop the progress of arthrosis. The only treatment is pain relief and, ultimately, replacing the damaged joint with an artificial one.

Damage to the cartilage on a joint’s surface is the first stage in the process that leads to arthrosis. Doctors currently have no way of fixing this early-stage cartilage damage.

Ilkka Kiviranta, professor of orthopaedics at the University of Helsinki, and Minna Kellomäki, professor of biomaterials and tissue engineering from the Tampere University of Technology, established a research consortium in 2009 to find a solution for the treatment of cartilage damage in weight-bearing joints as well as the prevention of arthrosis.

 “So this all got started from the needs of orthopaedists,” says DPhil Virpi Muhonen, former academic researcher, currently an entrepreneur and CEO of Askel Healthcare Ltd.

 “We can’t stop now”

Cell biologist Virpi Muhonen joined Kiviranta’s research group in 2010, as soon as her maternity leave ended.

 “The research was very interesting, and also very productive. When the project ended in 2012, we had managed to develop a promising biomaterial that could be used to repair damaged cartilage. The material had yielded very good results in animal tests.”

The basic research was completed and the academic research project itself was over. Yet Muhonen and her researcher colleague, DSc (Tech.) Anne-Marie Haaparanta from the Tampere University of Technology, were not quite ready to let go of the fruits of their labour.

 “We felt like we couldn’t stop there! We wanted to be the ones to make sure that the product would be marketed and make its way to patients.”

The Tekes Business from Research Ideas funding couldn’t have come at a better time: Muhonen and Haaparanta received a one-year grant for turning their invention into a product and surveying its commercial potential.

 “The results were promising, so we applied for further funding from Tekes to take our project forward. It took some work, but we finally got another two-year grant.”

Five women of knowledge and skill

After the Tekes funding ran out, the COPLA Scaffold was ready for the market. The cherry on the cake was winning the Science Pitching competition at the SLUSH event in 2015.

Inventions generated through university research are typically brought to the market through licensing, but Muhonen and Haaparanta chose another way. In March 2017, they established Askel Healthcare Ltd. Muhonen is the CEO and Haaparanta the CTO of the company.

 “We have five women in our company, and combined, we have all the knowledge and skill we need to make this product. We all also own shares in the company,” Muhonen explains.

 “Of course it’s a big risk – it’s no small feat to jump to entrepreneurship from a research career – but this just felt like the right choice for us.”

The new company raised €100,000 in angel investment, and Tekes supported the fledgling company with a €50,000 grant. They launched a public crowdfunding campaign on August 22. The COPLA Scaffold™ will appear on the market in September.

Animal patients the first to benefit

 “The product will first be adopted in veterinary medicine. For the product to receive CE marking, indicating that it is a medical device certified for use in human treatment, we will have to conduct more tests to fulfil the requirements of the authorities,” Muhonen says.

We’re all academic researchers by training, we think like researchers and demand that level of quality.

The product has an extensive market in the field of veterinary medicine, for example in the treatment of joint cartilage damage among horses and dogs in the United States.

 “We’re launching a clinical trial on horses in Kentucky, and Professor Outi Vapaavuori is conducting a clinical study on canine patients at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. We don’t technically need these studies to launch the product, but we’re all academic researchers by training, we think like researchers and demand that level of quality – we want to make absolutely sure that the product works.”

Muhonen and Haaparanta also want to make the product available to all pet owners. “It would not be ethical to us if the product were only available to wealthy horse owners, for example. So we have to find a suitable price point.”

The secret is in the structure

The COPLA Scaffold™ implant is a flexible support structure of collagen and polylactide, which can be cut into suitable shapes and sizes for each damaged section.

 “It doesn’t look like much, a little like non-woven fabric, but the secret is in the structure,” says Virpi Muhonen.

The implant is positioned on the surface of the damaged cartilage during keyhole surgery, and bone marrow stem cells which are capable of forming cartilage immediately begin to attach to it. When the joint, and the COPLA Scaffold within it, experiences loading, the cells begin to specialise into cartilage tissue. Meanwhile, the implant begins to gradually decompose, ultimately leaving only the healthy cartilage surface.

Weight can – and must – be placed on the joint immediately after surgery, a major benefit particularly for animal patients.

 “Our material creates circumstances in which cartilage can repair itself,” Muhonen explains.

How does the COPLA Scaffold™ -implant work?  Watch the video