Mar 28, 2017
Wear and Tear

Preventing and treating overuse injuries is a priority for athletic trainers. The results of a recently published study on collagen indicate that this process may get a little easier.

Collagen, the strands of protein that are braided into a structure similar to rope, give strength and stiffness to tissue. Previously, it was believed that these strands would “just stretch or slide by each other” when under stress — it was unclear whether they were actually damaged. But the new study, published in the most recent issue of Nature Communications, shows that collagen does unravel at a molecular level leading up to complete failure.

“Accumulation of subfailure damage can go on for a long time with no catastrophic failure, but repeated damage results in inflammation,” Jeffrey Weiss, PhD, a Bioengineering Professor at the University of Utah and one of the study’s lead researchers, said in a university press release. “So this vicious cycle continues, the inflammation breaks down the tissue, making it more susceptible to damage, which then can result in a massive tear.”

The research team examined this molecular damage with collagen hybridizing peptide (CHP), a new probe that binds to unraveled strands of damaged collagen. This process allows researchers to see the location and extent of damage for tendons that have been overloaded.

“The scientific value of this is high because collagen is everywhere,” Michael Yu, PhD, a Bioengineering Professor at the University of Utah and another lead researcher on the project, said. “When we are talking about this mechanical damage, we’re talking about cartilage and tendons and even heart valves that move all the time. There are so many tissues which involve collagen that can go bad mechanically. The issue is important for understanding many injuries and diseases.”

Some of the expected extensions of this research include using CHP probes to diagnose collagen damage. For athletes specifically, this would be helpful in gauging how much damage has occurred before they suffer a massive tear.

“A fundamental understanding of the loads and strain that cause molecular damage has eluded us until now,” Dr. Weiss said. “Our findings can translate into recommendations for athletes on how to train or what rehabilitation protocols people who are injured can use.”

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