Groundbreaking prosthetic knee research project receives £1.7 million grant 

A grant worth nearly £1.7 million will help University scientists develop a pioneering new kind of prosthetic knee that could revolutionise treatment.

The award – one of 19 from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – will fund scientists in Leeds as they develop an artificial knee joint made entirely from polymer, which could improve the quality of life of people with osteoarthritis who need surgery. 

A team at the University of Leeds’s School of Mechanical Engineering, led by Professor Louise Jennings, will work with medical technology company Invibio – part of global polymer business Victrex – in a consortium involving other academic and industrial collaborators, to progress their project. 

Conventional knee replacement joints contain metal, usually cobalt chrome, alongside a plastic (polyethylene) insert clipped into a metal tibial tray. Although they have been in use for years, they can often be prohibitively expensive. 

These conventional joints also cause problems for the 10% to 15% of people who are sensitive to the metals they contain, and can lead to the underlying bone remodelling itself in ways that can cause the patients pain, often leaving patients saying their new joints simply do not feel like a natural knee. 

The new PEEK-OPTIMA knee technology being developed by Invibio, and pre-clinically investigated by Professor Jennings’ team, is instead made entirely of polymer. This meaning it is aimed at improving patient outcomes, lightweight, non-metal, and much more efficient to manufacture than cobalt chrome – solving many of these problems. 

A visualisation of a polymer knee joint.

The PEEK-OPTIMA™ prototype knee joint is made from polymer.

Professor Jennings said: “Healthcare worldwide is being challenged financially and capacity is being reached in many regions both in the UK and further afield. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating this and the waiting lists for elective surgery have grown to an unprecedented backlog.  

“This technology has the potential to improve clinical outcome and quality of life for patients with osteoarthritis. Overall, this could make a positive societal impact and may lead to other socio-economic benefits such as improved patient satisfaction, higher quality of life, and capacity to work.”  

The new joints are already in clinical trial, and the researchers will now look at answering crucial questions before their invention can start helping people whose lives are blighted by joint pain.  

Dr John Devine, Managing Director at Invibio, said: “We are delighted to be working with Leeds University and to secure this funding, which will boost our own significant investment into research and clinical trials from our New Product Development Centre in Leeds. Our PEEK-OPTIMA femoral knee component is already showing encouraging results in implanted patients during trials, and we are interested to see if we can further improve patient experience.” 

The EPSRC grant will fund the investigation of alternative ways to fix the knee replacement into bone, and how the natural tissue of the kneecap interacts with the polymer. Professor Jennings and her team will be working with Professors Ruth Cameron and Serena Best at University of Cambridge, and Geistlich Pharma – both new collaborations. 

Dr Andrew Bourne, Director of Partnerships at EPSRC, said the “Prosperity Partnerships” programme, which encompasses the grant for Professor Jennings and Invibio, shows how business and academia can work together and deliver economic and societal impact. 

He added: “These new projects showcase the breadth of research and innovation in the UK, covering a wider range of sectors, and support the UK’s ambitions to be a science superpower and an innovation nation.”