Antibiotic-releasing Polymer May Help Eradicate Joint Implant Infection

    Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have developed an antibiotic-releasing polymer that may greatly simplify the treatment of prosthetic joint infection, and in a recent report published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, they describe how implants made from this material successfully eliminated 2 types of prosthetic infection in animal models.

    “Currently, most infections involving total joint replacement prostheses require a 2-stage surgery, in which the patient’s daily activities are largely compromised for 4 to 6 months,” said study co-author Orhun Muratoglu, PhD, director of the Harris Orthopaedics Laboratory in the MGH Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

    “Our finding that polyethylene, the most commonly used weight-bearing surface in total joint surgery, can be made to safely and effectively release antibiotics implies that fully weight-bearing implants made with this material could be used to treat infection in a single procedure, reducing both the inconvenience and the risk of complications for patients.”

    Delivering antibiotics to an infected prosthetic joint is challenging because of the limited supply of blood to the area. The standard treatment for prosthetic joint infection in the US – which affects up to 30,000 people each year – involves removal of the implant and adjacent infected tissues and placement of a temporary spacer made from antibiotic-releasing bone cement.

    The temporary spacer remains within the joint space for at least 6 weeks, and sometimes for as long as 6 months. During that time, the patient’s movement may be significantly restricted, depending on the involved joint.

    In a second surgery, a new prosthesis is implanted, using antibiotic-releasing bone cement. But patients still can be at risk for recurrent infection, which may lead to the need for permanent joint fusion or amputation and has a 10% to 15% mortality rate.

    Antibiotic-releasing bone cement has several limitations. Its ability to release an effective antibiotic dose may be brief, lasting little more than a week, and increasing the antibiotic content reduces the material’s durability. In addition, some antibiotics with desirable qualities cannot be incorporated into a bone cement.

    For the current study, the research designed and developed an antibiotic-releasing polymer that could be incorporated into the implant itself.

    Based on mathematical and statistical models, the material they developed contained irregularly shaped antibiotic clusters, making them able to release effective drug doses over extended periods of time without compromising the strength of the material.

    Implants made from this polymer were tested in animal models of prosthetic joint infection produced either by injecting a solution containing Staphyloccocus aureus into the prosthesis or implanting a titanium rod covered with an S. aureus biofilm, a coating of bacteria that is particularly difficult to treat. In both situations, the antibiotic-releasing polymer successfully eliminated the infection, while implantation of a drug-release bone cement spacer was not effective.

    “We used 2 separate infection models because when patients present with prosthetic joint infection symptoms, it is not clear what proportion of bacteria may be in a biofilm and what are free floating in solution,” Dr. Muratoglu said.

    “The ability of our devices to eradicate all bacteria in the joints in both models strongly suggests they would be successful against both types of periprosthetic infection.”

    Dr. Muratoglu noted that in addition to speeding the recovery of patients and reducing the chance of complications, the elimination of a second surgical procedure should reduce overall costs.

    The research team is now working with the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies to pursue necessary approvals and develop this material into clinical products.


    Suhardi VJ, Bichara DA, Kwok SJJ, et al. A fully functional drug-eluting joint implant. Nature Biomedical Engineering. 2017. doi:10.1038/s41551-017-0080.