Ateam of researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM), led by Assistant Professor Christina Salas with assistance from a rotating team of about 15 engineering students, is looking to change how orthopedists handle ligament reconstructions.
The research is being done by two UNM departments—the Department of Orthopedics and the Department of Engineering.
Salas has identified several issues, including taking functioning tendons from other parts of the body (which damages them, she says), contact with the rough edges of bones, the process of drilling and tethering new tendons, but the biggest issue, she says, is that the tendons taken from another part of the body do not exactly match the damaged ligaments they are used to replace.
“The mechanical properties of the tendon that you’re using to replace the ligament are similar but not identical, so over time the tendons … start to become lax and pull apart,” Salas said. “There is not an ideal surgical treatment to address that issue.”
Other researchers are studying techniques to create artificial substitute ligaments. Salas is skeptical that any of these techniques will solve all the problems that exist with the current standard surgery.
“I see that when you just create a substitute for a ligament alone, you’re still going to have the same problems surgically as taking a ligament and putting it there. You need to try to recreate everything related to that ligament, including the interface that connects it to the bone,” Salas said.
Salas’s team is concentrating its efforts on smaller ligaments, primarily in the hand and wrist, to prove feasibility. Then they plan to apply the same technology to larger joints such as the knee and shoulder.
According to Salas, the next step for the study is animal testing for biocompatibility, followed by a large-scale clinical trial phase. She told Gabriella Rivera a news reporter for the Daily Lobo that she hopes the technology will be available for patients in about five years.
If the research does expand to this level, this technique could help solve the growing plague of serious ligament injuries in young athletes. Dave Bracken, the head coach of the men’s rugby team, said he sees great potential in this research for the future of the team and all sports whose athletes are affected by these injuries.