Scientists have created artificial replacements for arms, legs, joints and other body parts. But developing an artificial meniscus—the shock-absorbing cartilage pad in the knee that millions of people damage every year—has eluded modern medicine.
Researchers are now tantalizingly close to achieving that goal, a step that could help stave off more serious problems, including arthritis and knee-replacement surgery, in later years.
Drake Ross, a 54-year-old bank examiner in Columbus, Ohio, this year became the first American to have a synthetic meniscus, called NUsurface, implanted in his knee as part of a clinical trial.
And scientists from New York’s Cornell and Columbia universities have successfully tested in sheep a method of growing a new meniscus inside the knee joint using a 3-D printer and the body’s own stem cells. They hope to begin testing the technique in people soon.
Either method would be a “game changer—no question,” says Nicholas DiNubile, a knee specialist in Havertown, Pa., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “But it’s a tall order. You’re trying to replace Mother Nature here. We’ve been burned before.”