Are Tantalum Hip Implants Safe?

I have been told that daytime TV is punctuated by a continual stream of ads for personal-injury lawyers asking if you have been injured by a particular medication or medical device.  Since 2002, billions of dollars have been paid out in lawsuits over metal-on-metal hip replacements containing cobalt and/or chromium, the “loose” ions of which increase the risk for aseptic lymphocyte-dominated vasculitis-associated lesions (ALVAL)—which are sometimes referred to as “pseudotumors.” So orthopaedic surgeons understandably want to know more about the potential long-term implications of newer metal technologies such as tantalum.

“Trabecular Metal” is a trade name for tantalum-based bone-ingrowth material that is now quite common in acetabular cups and revision shells used for total hip arthroplasty (THA). In the March 4, 2020 issue of the The Journal, Brüggemann et al. investigated the safety of these tantalum components. They retrospectively reviewed blood tantalum levels in 30 patients who underwent primary THA with no tantalum components, 30 patients who received a tantalum cup during a primary THA, and 84 patients who received a tantalum shell during a revision. Tantalum levels in 59 blood-donor volunteers served as controls. The authors also measured subsets of lymphocytes (CD8+ and CD4+ T-cells) that are thought to be associated with the immunologic cascade causing ALVAL.

At an average follow-up of 4 years, Brüggemann et al. found that median tantalum concentrations were 0.051 µg/L  in those receiving primary tantalum implants and 0.05 µg/L in those receiving primary implants without tantalum. (The “detection limit” for tantalum used in this study was 0.05 µg/L.) Patients receiving revision tantalum shells had median serum tantalum levels of 0.091 µg/L.  Time since surgery did not affect tantalum levels.

The authors also found a weak negative correlation between increased tantalum concentration and lower concentrations of CD8+ T-cells. Clinically, none of the hips in this series was deemed loose, and the Harris hip scores among all subjects were good to excellent.

It seems that with stable tantalum implants, any increase in serum concentrations of tantalum is small, but we don’t yet know the longer-term implications of these small increases. While it’s also reassuring that the lymphocyte activation associated with ALVAL does not seem to occur with these tantalum implants, I agree with the authors’ conclusion that this study “cannot exclude the possibility that even low tantalum concentrations confer a risk to patients’ health.”  Clearly, longer-term studies are needed.

Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

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