Growing new knees

June 11, 2009 3:28:21 PM PDT
It's that painful pop or snap more than 80,000 Americans hear every year. ACL tears often mean surgery to repair cartilage and months of rehab, but even that doesn't always ease the pain. The answer for knee injuries may be growing in the lab. Lisa Groom takes on the San Francisco hills with confidence. But not long ago, a knee injury while playing tennis kicked her off the court.

"I hit the shot and won the game, and I collapsed onto the ground," Groom said. "I felt my tibia push out the side of my leg totally."

She tore her ACL and destroyed her knee cartilage. The damage meant months of pain.

"It can overtake you," Groom said. "I would be awake all night on and off feeling it."

The tissue can't re-grow itself -- meaning treatment options are limited.

"Cartilage cells are very lazy cells," said Dr. Benjamin Ma, chief of sports medicine and shoulder surgery at the University of California in San Francisco.

Traditional procedures remove damaged cartilage but can't replace it. But Dr. Ma is helping develop new surgery that can replace it -- with a patch made of a patient's own cells. Surgeons remove a sample of the patient's knee cartilage through a 10- to 15-minute outpatient procedure. That cartilage is then sent to the lab, attached to a 3-D scaffold made of collagen, and grown for eight to 10 weeks. Then, the cartilage "patch" is implanted into the patient's knee.

"You're actually putting articular cartilage back into the knee, and you're not taking it from somewhere else," Dr. Ma said.

It's a more natural way of healing injuries that means patients can give their knees a new start.

Following the Neocart procedure, patients have to keep off their leg for six weeks. The procedure doesn't work for arthritis. Dr. Ma says he plans to grow larger pieces of cartilage so doctors could potentially heal an entirely worn out knee.


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