Orthopaedic surgeon receives prestigious award, $10 million grant

Constance Chu will receive a Kappa Delta Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; she has also been awarded a $10 million grant to research osteoarthritis prevention.

Constance Chu

Constance Chu, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery at the School of Medicine, has been named the recipient of a top award in her field and the largest-ever research grant in her department — both related to her work on pre-osteoarthritis

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons will present her with a $20,000 Kappa Delta Award on March 14; she will invest a portion in future research and share the remainder with her team. The award recognizes her decades of work in defining pre-osteoarthritis and for developing a new MRI technique to diagnose it. 

“It is really a huge honor,” Chu said, adding that the award is  sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize in orthopaedic surgery. “Our work early on was viewed with some skepticism, but our persistence and teamwork have paid off.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded Chu and her team a $10 million grant last fall, and this month approved a set of clinical trials to study ways to prevent osteoarthritis from occurring after an injury.

“We’re on a path toward preventing and finding cures for osteoarthritis and reducing the number of people who are disabled from joint pain and who need metal and plastic replacements,” she said. “That’s the most meaningful to me and my team — to make a difference for patients.”

Early in her medical career, Chu realized that while there was a condition known as pre-diabetes and that there were risk markers for heart disease, there were no equivalents for osteoarthritis. 

Predicting osteoarthritis

About half of patients who suffer an ACL injury develop osteoarthritis 10 to 15 years later, when the joint-cushioning cartilage has worn away to the point that bone rubs against bone. Regular MRIs and X-rays can reveal the damage only after patients are painfully aware of the problem and it’s too late to reverse the osteoarthritis.

But Chu and two colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh developed a new MRI technique that can diagnose pre-osteoarthritis. The technique generates a color map of the knee cartilage deep below the surface. Now, when a patient has suffered an ACL injury, it’s possible to see just one year later if pre-osteoarthritis is developing, long before a patient has symptoms and early enough, perhaps, for the cartilage to heal. 

“We now have the makings of an early warning system,” Chu said. 

The only current effective treatment for osteoarthritis is joint replacement once the symptoms grow severe enough to warrant surgery, but knowing that pre-osteoarthritis is developing opens up the possibility that osteoarthritis can be prevented. 

With the grant, Chu is conducting five studies, including two clinical trials that will test new strategies to prevent osteoarthritis. In one trial, her research team will look at how patients walk after injury and whether improving their gait can prevent the condition from developing. 

In another, they will test gene therapy in horses, who develop osteoarthritis similar to the way humans do. The researchers will also study preventive medications, stem cell therapies and the molecular changes that lead to the deterioration of cartilage.

“Some patients are able to heal on their own after injury,” Chu said, “while others aren’t. These trials will help us determine how we can help those who need it.”



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