CLEMSON — Patients could be less likely to reject artificial hips, knees and other medical implants thanks to the research that Andy Tennyson and his group are doing at Clemson University.

Tennyson, an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry, is the fourth Clemson faculty member this year to secure research funding through the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Andy Tennyson works with a member of his team in Hunter Chemistry Laboratory.

Andy Tennyson works with a member of his team in Hunter Chemistry Laboratory.

His $500,000 award will cover five years of research into modifying the artificial materials that go into the body as implants. The research could help prevent revision surgeries that are performed to repair or replace failing implants and are potentially life-threatening, particularly for elderly and infirm patients.

The immune system reacts to implants, such as replacement hips or knees, by attacking and chemically degrading them.

Tennyson’s long-term goal is to develop implants that resist failure by preventing chemical degradation. He hopes to have the technology ready for animal testing in five years.

The need is immense.

More than 1 million Americans get hip or knee joint replacement surgery every year, according to a National Hospital Discharge Survey. About 10 percent of surgeries are performed to repair or replace implants that have failed.

Tennyson said he was happy to tell the students in his research group that their hard work has paid off, helping win what is often called a NSF CAREER award.

“I feel it’s not so much that I won this CAREER award, but that we won it,” he said. “My group won this award for the hard work we are doing together.”

“This prestigious award is reserved for some of the nation’s top junior faculty members,” said Karl Dieter, chair of the chemistry department. “Dr. Tennyson is highly deserving. He exemplifies the role of teacher scholar through his research, excellent education and integration of research and education.”

Rather than invent a new material, Tennyson wants to modify the materials that are commonly used for implants. The materials include stainless steel, titanium, polyethylene and polypropylene.

“There is already a medical device infrastructure that has been built up around making devices around those materials, so we don’t want to say, ‘Throw that out. We’ve got to start from scratch,’” he said.  “We want to come up with a way to take what is already made and do some minor functionalization on the surface of it so that a new infrastructure doesn’t have to be designed from the ground up.”

The group’s research could apply to any device that goes in the body, ranging from artificial hips and knees to sutures, Tennyson said.

He expects the research to help extend the functional lifetimes of implants, reduce morbidity and mortality risks and decrease pain and inflammation after devices are implanted.

It could be particularly helpful to elderly and infirm patients, who are most likely to need implants and are most at risk in revision surgeries.

“One of the things that’s tragic is that somebody will get a joint replacement to reduce pain and swelling, which may be discomforting but not deadly,” Tennyson said. “But when the patient gets a revision surgery, it could be fatal. Then that person will have died from a medical complication linked to a condition that was not life threatening.

“We want to help prevent that.”

With Tennyson’s award, Clemson researchers this year have won six high-profile awards reserved for faculty members early in their careers. Feng Ding, Rachel Getman and Brandon Ross also won NSF CAREER awards, while Joseph Scott and Yue “Sophie” Wang have won awards through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program.

All the researchers are working on separate projects.

In addition, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education earlier this year included Clemson in its R1 category for doctoral universities. The category is reserved for universities with the highest research activity.

“Congratulations to Dr. Tennyson and all of our award winners,” said Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science. “Their awards, coupled with the R1 classification, underscores that Clemson is fostering an environment that encourages excellence in research.”

Tennyson credited Yamin Htet, a graduate student in his research group who recently completed work on her Ph.D., with doing the experiments that laid the groundwork for the grant proposal. Anshuman Mangalum, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University, did some of the initial compound synthesis and characterization.


Some of this material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under award number DMR-1555224. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.