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Knee cartilage graft and cell-based implant surgery may help prevent future arthritis

Click here for a Hyalofast scaffold animation.

If you’re a recreational athlete who’s been grounded due to cartilage damage in your knee joint, research being performed by Dr. Kelly Cunningham of Austin OrthoBiologics and Seton Medical Center Austin  (SMCA) may hold the answer to a much more effective way to get you back up to form. 

Research focused on regrowing your cartilage using your own stem cells with the Hyalofast scaffold is well underway, in an international study coordinated between Milan, Italy, and Boston.

Locally led by orthopedic surgeon Kelly Cunningham, MD, who specializes in sports medicine, knee and shoulder injuries, he has for two years performed the surgical procedures at SMCA, working in an integrative approach to bone and joint care. Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S.

Approved in Europe where it has been in use since 2009, the Hyalofast scaffold implant could mean avoiding future pain and arthritis, especially among athletes who suffer from knee joint cartilage damage as a result of running, tennis, soccer or other contact sports. This is specific to the articular cartilage lining of the knee joint, prior to the onset of wear-and-tear arthritis.


“For the athlete suffering from knee cartilage damage, this is a chance to allow the regrowth of normal cartilage using a novel one-step surgical procedure, and prevent progression to arthritis by treating the damage much earlier in the game,” Cunningham said. “Arthritis is the No. 1 outlier for lost work time, and we see a lot of late-stage damage resulting from old knee injuries, so this technique could be a way to never get to the arthritis stage in the first place.”


Revolutionizing knee cartilage damage treatment in the U.S. 

Currently, the most common treatment for articular cartilage knee damage in the U.S. is microfracture, popularized in the 1990s, which involves drilling holes to stimulate new cartilage growth. However, microfracture tends to lose its effectiveness over time. 

In comparison, European research has shown the Anika Hyalofast graft, used in conjunction with a patient’s own stem cells, is more effective in repairing articular cartilage damage. And unlike some other new surgical techniques, it is a single-step procedure.


How it works 

The Hyalofast scaffold is a bio-resorbable pad that’s inserted into the cartilage defect through a small incision. The pad is soaked in the patient’s own bone marrow stem cells to stimulate cartilage healing and regrowth.


Who can benefit from the implant?

Articular cartilage injury, also known as a “hard cartilage” (as opposed to meniscal cartilage) tear, usually results from sports-related injuries common to running and contact sports, and can be diagnosed by a physical exam and MRI.

The condition tends to affect healthy, active people in their 20’s to 50’s. It’s different, and less common, than the type of cartilage damage that develops from everyday wear and tear as we get older. 

As part of the FastTRACK study, select physicians are conducting research at eighteen sites around the U.S., as well as Europe. The controlled study will compare the safety and effectiveness of the experimental cartilage implant compared to microfracture surgery. Study participants will be evaluated for two years after receiving the implant to understand how the implant compares to the traditional approach. Seven- to ten-year results in the original European study are favorable in terms of pain relief and return to activity.

As one of only two study researchers in Texas, Cunningham is currently recruiting patients between ages 18 and 60 who have been diagnosed with cartilage tears in various parts of the knee known as the femoral condyles or femoral trochlea.


Cunningham is the founder of Austin Ortho Biologics, the Central Texas orthopedic surgery clinic that specializes in regenerative-era sports medicine, utilizing innovative surgical and non-surgical treatments for knee, shoulder, hip and elbow injuries, including cellular therapy to delay or avoid joint replacement surgery.

To find out if you qualify to participate in the study, contact study nurse Tina Adrean at (512) 324-9999 ext. 10025 or Dr. Cunningham's office at 512-410-0767


About Ascension Texas

In Texas, Ascension operates Providence Healthcare Network and Seton Healthcare Family, which includes Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and 120 related clinical facilities that together employ more than 13,000 employees. Across Texas, Ascension provided $467 million in community benefit and charity care in fiscal year 2016. Serving Texas for 115 years, Ascension is a faith-based health care organization committed to delivering compassionate, personalized care to all.

Dr. Kelly Cunningham Physician

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