New Science Sheds Light on the Future of Injury Prevention

Cristina Goyanes
by Cristina Goyanes
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New Science Sheds Light on the Future of Injury Prevention

By the time you need to schedule an MRI, you know you already have a problem. You’ve injured something — maybe your knee, ankle or shoulder. And now doctors need this scan to assess the situation and draw your roadmap to recovery.

If only you had listened to your body earlier when it first started telling you something was wrong. But those initial warning signs aren’t always easy to read.

Imagine a world where you could ask your doctor to investigate what’s happening inside your body before any damage is done and then advise you to dial back your training when necessary. The extra rest and lighter training load could help you avoid injury and continue to live a healthy, active, injury-free lifestyle. This scenario is the future that Professor S. Michael Yu envisions. Thanks to breakthrough research that he and his team at the University of Utah, plus other researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists are one step closer to making this vision a reality.


The study authors, who recently published their findings in Nature Communications, set out to examine whether it was possible to spot damage at a molecular level in collagen — the structural protein that makes up our tendons and ligaments. To do this, they used a substance called collagen hybridizing peptides, or CHP. What makes CHP unique is that it binds only to damaged collagen. If there’s no damage, no reaction occurs.

The scientists injected the excised tails of dead rats with a combination of CHP and imaging reagents designed to turn green under a microscope. Rat tails are structurally similar to human tendons in that they are mostly made up of collagen fibers. A machine then bent the tails to a variety of degrees, some slightly (like a mild strain), others to complete failure (Think: tear). They looked at each tail in their microscopes and found that the mixture worked just as they had intended. The more damaged the tissue, the brighter green it glowed.

“We were able to see where the damages were and under what conditions damage developed,” Yu says.

Sometimes, like in the case of the tails stressed to the point of tearing, the damage was extreme. But what’s really interesting is the molecular damage was also visible in tails that were stressed far more lightly.

“Our findings suggest that even if you are not over-stretching your tendon, such as a sprain, normal but repeated activity, such as running or playing tennis, leads to collagen damage,” Yu explains.

The type of damage Yu refers to is known as “subfailure damage,” and according to the University of Utah’s release announcing the study, it’s associated with ligament and meniscus tears as well as tennis elbow and other forms of tendinitis. Over time, sub-failure damage can accumulate and eventually lead to a full-on tear.



Being able to spot that damage, and address it before it becomes catastrophic, would be a huge boon for athletes. The bioengineering professor explains that it’s a long road from a test on dead rat tissue to getting one that works on live humans. But if they’re able to make an MRI version of the CHP test, Yu says, “Our technology could give early warnings to athletes that their tendon is damaged and that they need to rest before resuming training.”

Prevention and diagnosis aren’t the only applications Yu sees for CHP. He also believes that since CHP only binds to damaged collagen, it could be possible to mix it with drugs that could then be used to deliver treatment directly into the tissues that need it most.

There are also several ways CHP potentially could be used outside of athletics and injury prevention. Collagen is present in many tissues throughout the body, including in crucial structures like your heart and bones. Spotting and addressing issues there before they become major problems could literally be lifesaving. Yu says that the next thing he and his team will be exploring is how CHP could help spot and treat serious conditions.

“Since collagen damage is associated with many diseases, we are testing if we can detect those diseases and also deliver drug molecules to the disease site,” Yu says. “This includes cancer, arthritis and other degenerative diseases.”


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About the Author

Cristina Goyanes
Cristina Goyanes
Cristina Goyanes is a NYC-based freelance editor and writer who covers topics including sports and fitness, health and lifestyle, and adventure travel for various national men’s and women’s magazines and websites. When she’s not feverishly typing stories at her desk, she’s exploring the world, from the Arctic to Antarctica and plenty of countries in between. Follow her adventures and more at


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