Michigan Tech Engineer Seeks To Prevent Knee Osteoarthritis

Aging often means bad knees, and bad knees often mean osteoarthritis, a common and painful disability that affects more than 20 million Americans.

Tammy Haut Donahue, associate professor in mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, is a researcher with an ambitious goal: to prevent osteoarthritis.

The condition results from the breakdown of joint cartilage, which covers the ends of bones. With less cushion, more cartilage is worn away, and a painful rubbing of bone on bone occurs, resulting in osteoarthritis.

Haut Donahue's work centers on the knee. In particular, she studies the meniscus, which includes two crescent-shaped buffers of fibrocartilage that disperse friction and distribute the load where the femur and tibia meet in the knee joint.

Her Soft Tissue Mechanics Laboratory has developed a model to study the role of the meniscus in a damaged knee. While the meniscus was previously believed to be a passive structure in the knee, Haut Donahue's research shows that it has an important role in joint health.

Her research suggests that early interventions focused on the meniscus may help prevent future osteoarthritis or reduce its severity. For example, in collaborative work with Portage Health, a local hospital, Haut Donahue and her team have discovered that the attachments of the meniscus to the tibia may be compromised as we age, and therefore, the meniscus may not properly protect the underlying cartilage, leading to painful osteoarthritis.