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magazine home > archives > summer 2001 > features

Thanks to physics chair Shah Jahan and his cutting-edge laboratory, The University is becoming widely recognized as a research leader in the area of medical implants. His work is helping thousands of joint replacement patients enjoy life again without pain.

Joint Control
by Greg Russell

The pain tormented U of M academic counselor Glenn Fuller to such an extent that he could not sleep at night and that walking was a major chore. But thanks to a medical operation with a link to research at The University of Memphis, Fuller is now pain free and can enjoy life again.

Student in lab

Former University of Memphis student Paul Henry is one of many students who have worked for U of M researcher Dr. Shah Jahan in the physics professor's cutting-edge laboratory.

Fuller has "new" knees, thanks to total joint replacement surgery performed in early 1998. "Best thing I ever did," Fuller says. "The last year and a half before the surgery, I could not sleep for more than an hour and a half; the pain was so bad I would have to get up out of bed and walk around for five minutes."

Many individuals like Fuller are lashing back at pain with hip and knee replacements - nearly 2 million joint surgeries were performed worldwide last year alone. The medical industry grosses an estimated $4 billion a year in sales of joint replacement materials. More and more people - from the elderly suffering from arthritis to accident victims - are turning to joint replacement surgery.

Joint Effort

An integral part of the research that examines the manufacturing of joint replacement materials occurs in the lab of physics chair Shah Jahan at The U of M.

Dr. Jahan has teamed with several of the world's leading medical companies and hospitals on collaborations designed to improve and refine materials used to construct artificial joints. His work helps maximize the integrity of joint replacement materials.

Jahan and his research team consisting of U of M undergraduate and graduate students use state-of-the-art laboratory tools to analyze at the molecular level polyethylene, which is widely used in the
reconstruction of human joints.

"What we do may seem very small, but it is very important to the medical world in ensuring the integrity of their products," Jahan says. "It is important that the industries who manufacture joint replacement materials and the surgeons who are implanting them know what lies at the molecular level. Is the material clean and does it have any defects?

"We test to see whether the materials themselves develop any changes or problems as a result of being used in the human body over a period of time. Or how the materials might change as a result of mechanical tests or chemical processing that the industry is doing."

Gamma radiation or chemical is used to sterilize joint replacement parts. This process can lead to certain changes or formation of free radicals polyethylene used to build the parts. Subsequent long-term use can lead to other oxidative degradation.

Jahan uses electron spin resonance instruments to detect the changes at the molecular level. A recent addition to the lab - a $210,000 radical analyzer - puts The U of M in the company of a select few.

"The instrument is the only one that can detect and analyze free radicals," Jahan says. "Free radicals can cause oxidation to biomaterials. None of the several major medical companies in this area have this kind of machine nor do many large companies around the world. They come to us to analyze the materials they use to construct artificial joints."

Lightweight Matters

Though Jahan's work is mostly done at the microscopic level, that doesn't mean it isn't weighty stuff. Among his research partners are several heavy hitters in the medical industry: Wright Medical Technology, Smith & Nephew, Zimmer and Sofamor Danek. Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico also use Jahan's broad knowledge base and cutting-edge tools.

"There is a big advantage to working with universities," says Dr. Warren Haggard, vice president of Wright Medical in Arlington, Tenn. "They normally have expertise in different laboratory testing that we don't have at Wright."

Adds Smith & Nephew Director of Research Laura Whitsitt, "Partnering with universities like The U of M allows our company to ... deliver high quality new products to the market. Working with Dr. Jahan on polyethylene materials has enhanced Smith & Nephews' ability to provide the best technology for polyethylene components in total joint products."

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital cite Jahan as playing a key role in the development of modified and subsequently better forms of polyethylene materials that are now in widespread clinical use in hip and knee replacement products.

"What all this research means is a better product for the patient," Jahan says. "It can dramatically improve somebody's life."

Explosive Results

Jahan's research has had the most impact for medical companies, but its other applications are just as important. At Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, researchers rely on Jahan and his instruments for a very important reason: to help protect the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Jahan in lab with students  
Dr. Shah Jahan, right, demonstrates an electron spin resonance instrument to U of M students.

"We utilize his electron spin resonance (ESR) spectrometer and his broad knowledge in this field to investigate aging in polymers," Los Alamos scientist D. Wayne Cooke says. "This research is one component of the nation's science-based stockpile stewardship program whose intent is to ensure nuclear weapon integrity in the absence of nuclear above-ground testing.

"Dr. Jahan is an internationally recognized expert in techniques and applications of ESR to myriad scientific problems," Cooke says.

Many Returns

The benefits for joint replacement patients and for the medical industry and hospitals seem boundless. But the perks do not stop there, according to Jahan. "This research brings a lot of recognition to our University
- our work has been cited by many investigators and is recognized nationally and internationally," the professor notes.

Jahan himself has garnered much recognition. U of M President Shirley Raines noted his research at the May Convocation ceremony; in 1998 he received the University's Distinguished Research Award.

Jahan is director of the Memphis site of the National Science Foundation-sponsored "Multi-University/Industry Cooperative Research Center for Biosurfaces." Funding for research at the center is provided by companies such as Wright Medical and Smith & Nephew.

Jahan is quick to make sure his students reap benefits as well.

"The students who work here get hands-on experience using very high-quality cutting-edge research tools," he remarks. "They get to make presentations at industries, national and international conferences and they get to publish their work - two of their recent papers have been on display on a poster at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"The students get to know industry people through this program, and they gain employment opportunities," he continues. "Many of our students get job offers before they graduate."

The biggest benefit, Jahan points out, is to the patients who can function normally again. Just ask Fuller.

"That surgery was the best decision I ever made," Fuller says. "I can walk again without a lot of pain and can do the things in life I really enjoy like traveling."

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