SIMILAR TO SPACKLE FILLING IN THE CRACKS, A NEW PROCEDURE TAPS INTO YOUR BODY’S RESERVES TO REPAIR JOINT INJURIES WITH YOUR OWN CELLS. SO FAR SO GOOD.
You can’t get superhero knees—yet. But advances in stem cell repair could get you back on the mountain superhero fast.
For near two decades, Tim Petrick skied with constant pain in his right knee. As the former President and CEO of K2 Sports and the current COO at Silverton Mountain in Colorado, he’s had the fortune to ski some of the world’s most majestic mountains, and has probably made several million, mostly satisfying, turns.
But in 2000, one of a skier’s worst fears struck while Petrick was heli skiing in Alaska. “I tumbled down a couloir following (the late) Doug Coombs in deep powder and blew my ACL out,” says Petrick. “I also lost parts of my medial and lateral meniscus from going end over end.” After surgery to repair his ACL, his knee deteriorated over the next decade and he was prescribed an unloader knee brace, which mitigated the pain just enough so he could ski. “I wore that brace religiously because if I didn’t wear it, my knee would ache like crazy,” he says.
Petrick knew he was a classic candidate for total knee replacement surgery, but that seemed like a daunting decision to him. After years of being a hard-charging athlete, it also felt a bit like a defeat, a surrender of sorts on the battlefield of your body.
His doctor, Mark D. Wagner, MD, of Orthopedic Specialists of Seattle, recommended an alternative to the invasive joint replacement surgery. Wagner, an avid skier himself, had recently begun performing a procedure called Stem Cell Therapy. The procedure uses the patient’s own stem cells mixed with a sample of bone marrow and adipose tissue, which is spun in a centrifuge and injected into the damaged joint in what Wagner likens to spackle filling in the cracks. “You can also think of the stem cells as seeds you put on the bare spots on your lawn,” says Wagner. “Your platelets are the fertilizer, promoting growth. The stem cells sense the environment, go into the joint, and lay down new cartilage.”
The payback many skiers face after years of carving turns down icy slopes or the repetitive pounding from moguls is the breaking down of cartilage in their joints, particularly the knees. Cartilage is the tissue found on all joint surfaces, but because it’s not supplied with blood vessels, it doesn’t