The vast majority of total hip prostheses currently implanted consist of a hard metal or ceramic femoral head articulating against an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) acetabular cup. Over the last 10 years, evidence has accumulated to show that these prostheses are prone to failure due to late aseptic loosening and few survive beyond 25 years. With an increasing need to implant hip prostheses in the younger, more active patient the need to understand the mechanisms of failure and to develop artificial hip joints using alternative materials have become major issues in the orthopaedic community. This review focuses initially on our current understanding of the biological reactions to UHMWPE prosthetic wear debris in vivo and in vitro since this is believed to be the main cause of late aseptic loosening. While the precise mechanisms of osteolysis induced by UHMWPE wear debris have not been elucidated, the major message to emerge is that it is not the wear volume that determines the biological response to the debris, but the concentration of the wear volume that is within the critical size range (0.2-0.8 micron) for macrophage activation. The review then considers whether the problem of wear-debris-induced osteolysis may be overcome with the use of new generation metal-on-metal or ceramic-on-ceramic prostheses. For metal-on-metal prostheses, the prospects for increasing the osteolysis free life of the implant are good but additional biological problems associated with the nanometre size and reactivity of the wear particles in vivo may emerge. For the ceramic-on-ceramic prostheses, although initial prospects are encouraging, more data are needed on the characteristics of the wear particles generated in vivo before predictions can be made. It is concluded that the pre-clinical testing of any new materials for joint replacement must include an analysis of the wear particle characteristics and their biological reactivity in addition to the usual assessment of wear.
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