March Madness is upon us, which got us at FBR thinking. What does animal research have to do with filling out your bracket? Well, a great deal actually. Sports injuries can be a significant difference-maker when it comes to a team winning or losing. For basketball players, injuries are a real danger every time they step on the court. Animal research has and is contributing to many improved treatments and better surgeries for sports injuries. Here are some of the latest advances animal research is making in the world of sports injuries.

Only in the world of competitive sports could a surgical procedure be described as en vogue, but such is the case with microfracture surgery. Microfracture surgery corrects torn cartilage surrounding the knee by smoothing the edges of the tear and creating tiny fractures in the underlying bone, releasing stem cells from the bone marrow. This creates a ‘superclot’, or blood clot that releases cartilage-building cells as the body builds replacement cartilage to treat the microfractures. The technique was developed with animal models, specifically horses, and tested in macaques before being tried with humans. Ongoing studies with rabbits continue to refine the technique. From development to refinement, animal models were essential for modern microfracture surgery.

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March Madness got us thinking: how is animal research helping athletes?

One of the more common college basketball injuries is the internal derangement of the knee (IDK). IDK usually means a torn or damaged meniscus or cruciate ligament. In the worst cases, surgery may be required. Fortunately, years of experience healing injured animals and working with specialized animal models has equipped modern orthopedic surgeons with the skills necessary to treat an injured player so he or she can get back on the court. Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears are common injuries and often require reconstructive surgery to heal properly. The torn ligament is removed and replaced with a piece of tendon from another part of the knee or from a deceased donor. Securely fixing the tendon graft to the bone is a significant factor in allowing earlier and more aggressive rehab which means a quicker return to the court. Scientists at the Kobe School of Medicine in Japan have developed a procedure to make the graft heal faster and stronger by using cells from the torn ligament in the new graft. Working with rats and beagles, the researchers proved that their technique significantly shortened healing time – results that may have major benefits for sports orthopedics.

ACL tear seen on MRI. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

ACL tear seen on MRI. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

One of the reasons basketball players fear undergoing ACL surgery is the cartilage loss, which can become a big problem for athletes who heavily rely on their knees. It’s the reason you see players with big bags of ice taped around their knees. Now, researchers working with pigs have developed a new surgery to repair the torn ligament instead of replacing it. The technique uses a bio-engineered scaffold which guides the torn ends of the ligament together as they reform. The results of the repair are similar to replacement in both healing time and performance. Currently in FDA trials, this new technique could mean basketball players no longer have to fear cartilage loss following ACL surgery.

Arthroscopic surgery has been a boon for athletes – of both the human and animal variety. Athletes used to get big incisions for torn knee ligaments and other joint injuries, which led to very long recovery times. Arthroscopic surgery is now the gold standard. In this minimally invasive procedure, a surgeon inserts an arthroscope (a type of endoscope) into the joint through a small incision. For knee arthroscopy, only two small incisions are necessary. This surgery is truly revolutionary, as people recovering from arthroscopy can usually resume normal activities within days, while athletes can often return to their sport within a few weeks’ time.

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Animal athletes benefit from animal research.

Arthroscopic surgery was developed with the help of horses; in fact, racehorses have been prime beneficiaries of the technique. Years ago, joint injuries involved major surgery and long recovery times, and were often career ending for racehorses. But because of advancements in both equine and human surgical techniques, racehorses receiving procedures like arthroscopy have gone on to win major races, including the Kentucky Derby.

Researchers at Colorado State University are now studying stem-cell therapies to see how horses with joint injuries can benefit from regenerative approaches. This research could also translate to human athletes (or just us regular humans) one day.

Missing a key player during March Madness can quickly affect a team’s chances – watch the Las Vegas odds nosedive following the announcement of an injury to an important player. Conversely, a quicker-than-expected return to game play can lift a team’s spirits and scoreboard numbers. Trainers get most of the credit for returning a team’s star player to the court, but we think fans should take a moment to reflect on the hard work of the scientists and animals that give us game-changing treatments for athletes. The bottom line is that animal research leads to new therapies that make life better for us all.

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