Cartilage transplants helping heal 'potholed' knees



Posted on March 18, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 18 at 5:48 PM

With warmer weather, more and more runners and joggers are starting to train outdoors again. Knees often take the biggest beating, but now a new type of transplant is getting people back to their workouts faster than ever before.

Just like that, a pothole can form in your knee.  That's exactly what happened to marathon runner Kevin Kaspzyk.

"When I would try running on it, I would get a sharp needle-like pain," he said.

That pain was felt with Kaspzyk's every step, and he runs 80 miles a week.

"A lot of people are like, I can't imagine driving that long, let alone running it!" said Kaspzyk.

It took its toll.

"He said you have this big huge piece of missing cartilage," said Kaspzyk.

"Think of a pothole in your cartilage as a pothole in a road. If you keep driving over the pothole, or using your knee, the pothole will get bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, and that means the pothole has progressed onto osteoarthritis," said Dr. Joseph Guettler, orthopedic surgeon, Beaumont Hospital.

Guettler used transplanted cartilage to repair Kaspzyk's knee. Cartilage cells are harvested from the healthy part of the knee and sent to a lab, where they are grown for six weeks.

"Believe it or not, they can grow something that's pretty darn close to real hyaline, articular cartilage," said Guettler.

The cells are then injected under a patch that covers the "pothole."

"We're taking cartilage cells, and instead of sending them off to a lab, we're simply mincing them at the time of the procedure. They're sprinkled on a biological scaffold and implanted into the knee, all in one setting," said Kaspzyk.

The surgery is quick, but full recovery can take a year. Kaspzyk is now planning his 40th marathon.

"I'll be running Boston next year, and whether I get under three hours or not, I'm still able to do it," he said.

And he'll do it without any pain.

Cartilage transplantation works best for people who have not yet developed arthritis and could prevent them from getting it years later.

It's not just runners. Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres had the same procedure, but her left knee was so bad, she needed not one, but two cartilage transplants.