Oct 21, 2016
Bridge the Gap

As all athletic trainers know, tearing an ACL is a devastating injury that can end an athlete’s season and potentially change their entire career. But according to The Undefeated, this could all change in the future. Thanks to the work of Martha Murray, MD, Orthopedic Surgeon and Associate Professor in Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard University Medical School, an alternative form of ACL reconstruction can decrease recovery time and get athletes back to competition without lasting pain. 

Since the 1970s, surgeons have believed that the ACL lacks the ability to heal on its own and therefore requires a graft when it is torn. Yet, Dr. Murray refused to accept the notion that the ligament wasn’t able to heal—after all, that’s exactly what the body is designed to do after getting injured. 

More than 20 years of studying damaged ACLs led Dr. Murray to a groundbreaking discovery: The ligament did in fact try to heal itself, however, the lubricating synovial fluid that exists in all joints was inhibiting the process. In order to reattach at the site of a tear, damaged tissue ends needed blood to clot, but the fluid kept washing the blood away.

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With this new understanding, Dr. Murray set out to create a bridge that would last in the joint long enough to allow the ACL ends to reconnect and heal. She developed it in 2008, calling it the Bridge-Enhanced ACL Repair (BEAR) scaffold.

In 2013, Dr. Murray and her principal collaborator Braden Fleming, PhD, a Professor in the Department of Orthopedics at Brown University, published a study proving that the BEAR scaffold had worked in properly repairing torn ACLs in pigs. They were also able to show that the pigs treated with the BEAR procedure had significantly less arthritis—a common problem with ACL injuries—than those treated with a standard graft reconstruction.

The next step for Dr. Murray and Dr. Fleming was a human trial. Conducted in February 2015, the study involved using the BEAR scaffold on 10 patients with torn ACLs and comparing their results with another 10 patients who received the traditional grafting procedure. Three months later, flexibility and strength tests were completed on all 20 patients.

The results were in: All 10 of the BEAR recipients had properly healing ACLs and had regained flexibility close to that of their healthy knees. In addition, the operated legs of the BEAR patients had recovered strength faster than the graft recipients. The study will be published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine this December, and Dr. Murray and her team are now performing a 100-participant trial.

Though this is just the beginning of Dr. Murray’s work, she is thrilled about the results, and athletes should be too. She hopes that this research will continue to provide positive outcomes so that the BEAR scaffold can become the new standard for ACL repair.

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