KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It pained James Cook to watch his grandfather hobble on arthritic, achy knees.
The elderly man had undergone several surgeries, including one of the first knee replacements in the late 1960s. Ultimately his joints reduced him to crutches and, in his last years, to a wheelchair. Cook said he vowed at age 8 to become a doctor or a scientist and fix it so that "no one would ever have to suffer through what my grandpa did."
He is getting close. The professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri said he thought he and team members were on the brink of changing the way the human knee was replaced. The goal, Cook said, "is to put metal and plastic joints out of business."
He wants to take the joint replacement process from bionics to biological. The concept? Biological cartilage, specifically grown from stem cells outside the body and then shaped for insertion into the knee.
Cook, 45, has performed the procedure successfully in dogs. The research, the result of 11 years of work, recently was written up in the medical journal The Lancet.
"If we continue to prove the safety and efficacy of this biologic joint replacement strategy, then we can get FDA approval for use of this technology for joint replacements in people," he said.
Cook is collaborating with a tissue regeneration research team led by professor Jeremy Mao at Columbia University, as well as a lab at Clemson University.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons considers knee replacements one of the most important advances of the last century. In the United States, 581,000 procedures a year are performed.
Most are done using metal or plastic replacements. Cook said he thought biological replacements would last longer, be more flexible and give the patient a better quality of life. The process involves taking a patient's own cells to create new cartilage and then mold it to a knee.