Objective and sensitive assessment of cartilage repair outcomes lacks suitable methods. This study investigated the feasibility of 3D ultrasound biomicroscopy (UBM) to quantify cartilage repair outcomes volumetrically and their correlation with established classification systems. 32 sheep underwent bilateral treatment of a focal cartilage defect. One or two years post-operatively the repair outcomes were assessed and scored macroscopically (Outerbridge, ICRS-CRA), by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI, MOCART), and histopathology (O'Driscoll, ICRS-I and ICRS-II). The UBM data were acquired after MRI and used to reconstruct the shape of the initial cartilage layer, enabling the estimation of the initial cartilage thickness and defect volume as well as volumetric parameters for defect filling, repair tissue, bone loss and bone overgrowth. The quantification of the repair outcomes revealed high variations in the initial thickness of the cartilage layer, indicating the need for cartilage thickness estimation before creating a defect. Furthermore, highly significant correlations were found for the defect filling estimated from UBM to the established classification systems. 3D visualisation of the repair regions showed highly variable morphology within single samples. This raises the question as to whether macroscopic, MRI and histopathological scoring provide sufficient reliability. The biases of the individual methods will be discussed within this context. UBM was shown to be a feasible tool to evaluate cartilage repair outcomes, whereby the most important objective parameter is the defect filling. Translation of UBM into arthroscopic or transcutaneous ultrasound examinations would allow non-destructive and objective follow-up of individual patients and better comparison between the results of clinical trials.
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