For as long as sports have been played, a torn ACL has been a season-ending injury. A full recovery typically takes six to nine months, and countless athletes, no matter how physically fit, have had promising seasons turn to dust after they crumble to the ground in pain. Take the Minnesota Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater, for instance. The young quarterback suffered a torn ACL in training camp a few months ago, ending his much-hyped third season before it even began.
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According to an article in The Undefeated, a new type of ACL surgery could change all that, allowing athletes to return to their respective sports in a few months instead of missing an entire season. Dr. Martha Murray, a former Harvard medical student who spent most of her graduate career seeking a better way to perform surgery on a torn ACL, has apparently figured out a way to solve the biggest challenge in repairing the ACL—getting the ligament to heal itself.
Since the ACL is unable to regenerate itself, traditional ACL surgeries require a surgeon to take a graft from another tendon in the patient’s body, such as the hamstrings, and use it to replace the torn ACL ligament. But when Murray discovered that a torn ACL ligament still had “active cells and blood vessels,” she knew it was attempting to heal itself, which was all the hope she needed. From the article:
Murray discovered that although the ligament itself was working hard to heal, the synovial fluid — the lubricating substance that exists inside of all joints — was washing away the blood clot that serves as the initial connection between torn tissue ends in other parts of the body. Finally, she knew what needed to be done. She had to find a bridge that would last in the joint long enough to allow the ACL ends to heal back together.
Image via Boston Children’s Hospital
Using tissue from New Zealand cows, Murray created this bridge, and lo and behold, when she experimented with her new surgery on pigs in 2008, the animals were able to regrow their ACLs. When she performed the surgery, called the Bridge-Enhanced ACL Repair (BEAR), on 10 human patients, this was the result three months later:
All 10 of the BEAR recipients had healing ACLs, flexibility close to that of their healthy knee, and the operated legs of the BEAR recipients had recovered strength more quickly than the graft recipients.
Murray is planning to conduct a 100-person study in the near future, with the hope that BEAR becomes prominent enough that athletes will feel good about going under the knife for it. The benefits to sports teams, losing a player for just a few months instead of an entire season, could be enormous.